In the spring of 1996, right before my first trip to Africa, I participated in a “behind-the-scenes” tour at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. During the tour, we were allowed into the close contact area of the elephant barn, an area separated from the zoo’s three elephants by strong metal bars. One by one, they were brought forward by their handler, and we fed them carrots from a 50-pound bag.
One of the elephants, Chai, was extremely interested in my sister’s leather coat, gently squeezing it at the shoulder, inhaling each square inch down to my sister’s elbow, as if asking, What animal is this? My brother-in-law, who is huge by human standards, was especially fascinating in his leather coat. Sniff. Squeeze. And who are you?
Trunk length from an elephant for the very first time, I was mesmerized by the meditative intelligence in her eyes.
Chai rumbled, the sound reverberating throughout the barn.
We hummed back at her, sang a low, wordless song, my brother-in-law’s voice especially deep and loud. She turned her head from side to side, as if trying to understand our oscillating meaning. Then the air around us condensed, washed over us in waves, pulsated just below our range of hearing. It was my first experience with infrasound, vibrations I could feel in my chest, vibrations my ears would never hear.
Chai slowly stretched out her trunk to accept a carrot from my sister, stuffed it into her cheeks and then slowly reached out for another. When her cheeks were as stuffed as a chipmunk’s, her handler said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and tapped her alternately above each knee with an ankus, an elephant hook. She backed up, swinging her head from side to side.
In 1980, when Chai was only a year old, she was separated from her mother and flown to Seattle by Thai Airways to commemorate the delivery of the first Boeing 747 to Thailand. She was only sixteen when I met her. Two years after our behind-the-scenes tour, Chai was shipped to Missouri to be bred to a bull named Onyx. By then several artificial insemination attempts had already failed to impregnate her.
After three days and 2,100 miles in a truck, she arrived at the Dickerson Park Zoo. On the third day after her arrival, the Dickerson Zoo’s staff beat her for two-and-a-half hours because she would not respond to their commands. (The zoo was later fined $5000.) Chai lost 1,000 pounds in the twelve months she was in Missouri.
Finally pregnant, she was trucked back to Seattle. Twenty-two months later, in 2000, she gave birth to a female calf. The naming contest for the new zoo resident gathered 16,000 entries. The Thai name selected, Hansa (pronounced HUN-suh), means “Extreme Happiness.” Once the calf was on view attendance at the zoo doubled and Chai proved to be a very capable mother.
But in June of 2007, Hansa died, infected with a new strain of elephant herpes – a highly communicable virus that had already claimed the lives of forty percent of young Asian calves in zoos. Hansa made a lot of money for Woodland Park, so Chai has been artificially inseminated again and again – a total of 112 times – resulting in just one other pregnancy and the miscarriage of that calf.
Day after day, Chai listens to hordes and choruses of unfamiliar human noises. She listens and moves slowly back and forth in her cage. Perhaps she mourns the loss of her Extreme Happiness. Perhaps after awhile it all blurs, like the background hum of an engine in flight.