Several years ago I read Barbara Gowdy’s The
White Bone. I knew the novel was anchored
with meticulous research and directed at the plight of elephants.
But I became enchanted with the character of Mud, a lame orphaned
elephant. It was as if Mud were speaking directly to me. Research
strongly supports the complex social relationships among elephants.
They are very demonstrative with each other, live in hierarchical
herds for life, can remember fellow elephants even when separated
by years or by death, and communicate across vast distances
with infrasonic messages. Gowdy’s story wove these threads
of science into the story of one herd, told by its matriarch,
story captured my imagination very deeply. But it wasn’t
so clear to me how to respond.
Although we are becoming more aware of the plight of elephants
today, there is something limiting about seeing them only
as endangered. Sure I want to help, but I think that has
as much to do with understanding as with action. In some
ways action is much easier than understanding. After all,
misunderstood imagination led us astray in the first place.
It wasn’t Mud’s plight that caught my imagination.
It was this exquisite sense of how similar and yet how different
we are. It was like this Other is staring back at me, and
finding recognition. Sometimes when I see the sad eyes of
elephants, I feel like they are long-suffering in waiting
for us to recognize what they’ve known all along,
that we are brothers and sisters.
So if I was going to anthropomorphize, I might as well be
informed. Slowly I started to read about elephants; the
image of Mud stayed with me. When Watershed started studying
the Wisdom of Creation in the summer of 2003, something
started coming together a bit for me. It was a natural extension
from our Jesus and the Wisdom Tradition course in which
we had come to understand Jesus as the archetypal human.
The brilliant brush strokes of evolution and the Big Bang
painted a wonderfully complex mural of the pulse of life
in our universe, and our planet. Seeing the indelible signs
of purpose as life moves towards ever-increasing complexity
inevitably made us ask how this relates to the self-giving
love that Jesus’ life and death revealed. These questions
started me asking how the evolution of human consciousness
related to other species. Can we humans imagine coexisting
in a sustainable way with other species and their environment?
Compassion has something to teach us about taking a more
whole perspective, and the suffering that involves.
Back to Mud. At the end of the book, she has a vision of Sanctuary,
and attempts to lead her herd there. Sanctuary is where humans
come to look but not shoot. Her vision is vague and poignant
because you realize she must trust the very creatures who
have caused such tragedy in her life. A few years after reading
The White Bone, I stumbled on Carol Buckley’s
story. As a college student, she fell in love with a baby
elephant owned by a local car salesman. She bought Tarra and
began training and touring with her for circuses and zoos.
As they both matured, Carol began to realize how stultifying
performing was for an adult elephant. She tried finding a
suitable sanctuary for Tarra. When she found that none existed,
Carol realized she owed it to Tarra to create one, and The
Elephant Sanctuary was born. Together with Scott Blais and
a host of volunteers, Carol manages 2,700 acres of pasture
and forest in Tennessee for nine retired elephants. Human
access is limited, so the elephants don’t ever have
to perform again. But education and interaction is encouraged
through a website with daily diaries and webcams, and through
video-conferencing. Look, but don’t shoot.
Meanwhile, my friend Bev was thinking of having her birthday
party in support of Jane Goodall’s work
with chimps. I thought this was a great idea; what better
way to deepen a compassionate response towards animals than
within community. Since we have birthdays in the same month,
I asked and Bev graciously agreed to invite an elephant. In
honour of our guests, we reviewed The Ten Trusts
by Jane Goodall and Mark Beckoff, watched some great elephant
and chimp “home
movies” and made donations to The
Jane Goodall Foundation
Elephant Sanctuary. For me it was a great way
to honour the image of Mud, and to take a small step towards
the vision of compassionate humanity she was calling out in
me. I want to continue to learn about my fellow creatures
and to respond from what I learn in a growing inclusivity.