Posted in Nature, Writing, Zoos

Solitary Confinement

Jabu eye 2 b&w



two steps forward, two steps back,

the elephant sways to a rhythm no one, not even she, can hear.  Two steps forward, two steps back.  Swaying, her head dips to one side, then the other.  Her motions are born from a numb brain, from uncut boredom, from the measurement of a life by that which does not happen.

Beyond the barriers that surround her, a jerky stream of humans flows past, day after day.  Their powerful odors overwhelm her, and she touches her temporal gland, samples her urine, the only familiar smells left to her.  At the end of each day, after the humans are gone, she hears a multitude of rumbles, but none have resonances she can recognize.

Sometimes she will lie down on the huge square stone into which she is entombed and sleep.  There are no stars over her head.

She ceased calling out to her kin a long time ago.

As near as she knows, she is the only elephant left on earth.




Note:  There are 284 elephants in 79 accredited zoos in the United States.  Most zoos have more than one elephant, because elephants are social creatures who need companions from their own species.  I originally wrote this piece when I learned of Maggie, who lived at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage for 24 years, the last eleven of those years alone.  In 2008 she was transported to the PAWS sanctuary in California, where she now lives with other African elephants.  Here are the remaining zoos that keep just one elephant:

  1. San Antonio Zoo – “Lucky”
  2. Double M. Ranch, New York – “Reba”
  3. T.I.G.E.R.S., South Carolina – “Bubbles”
  4. Natural Bridge Zoo, Virgina – “Asha”
  5. Wild Adventures, Georgia – “Shirley”  – Shirley is age 69 and has been in captivity since 1946.

Sources:  verified independently, using the database from


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

14 thoughts on “Solitary Confinement

  1. I flinched when I saw the title of your post in my in-box, and knew I must read it, even though I hate knowing about the misery and anguish of elephants and all animals.
    This is a moving and beautifully written piece… thank you for having the courage and heart to write it.

  2. Your wonderfully descriptive writing brought me to tears, Cheryl. What a sad, lonely existence it must be for these solitary elephants. My heart aches for them all.

  3. Well written, Cheryl. The sight of animals in confided spaces, lonely and bored, has always affected me very deeply. X

      1. Thank you for those very kind words, Cheryl. Your writings thrill me ! To be able to project yourself into the body of another living-being and experience their (emotional) pain not only takes an exceptional depth of understanding few possess but also a very beautiful, sensitive heart and soul. It is a privilege to know you. With much love

  4. How sad to read this.
    I’m so glad we have several Thai elephants at our Melbourne Zoo (but only one male). Our breeding program have ensured there’s plenty of company and with a variety of ‘paddocks’ or enclosures that are reasonably large, they don’t get too bored (I hope).

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