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An Elephant Birthday header
By Linda Tiessen Wiebe

THERE IS AN elephant at my 43rd birthday party. Her wise eyes gaze at my friends and me laughing and eating cake. We are talking about her….

lone elephant graphic 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, Mud. This 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.

The Elephant Sanctuary graphic 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 and The 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.

There is an elephant at my 43rd birthday party. Her wise eyes gaze at my friends and me laughing and eating cake. We are talking about her…and she knows that we are slowly finding our way towards the wisdom of animals.

elephant eye graphic

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