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Authors: Thomas French

Zoo Story

BOOK: Zoo Story
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For the colt and the spider monkey
and the girl riding bareback in the sun

“I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces.
Religion faces the same problem.
Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

Life of Pi

This is a work of nonfiction, based on four years of reporting at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, along with additional reporting in Africa, Panama, and New York. The book follows the lives of both humans and animals, and all of the names and details describing them are real. Nothing has been invented. Though I witnessed many of the scenes and overheard much of the dialogue firsthand, some sections are reconstructed from interviews and research. My descriptions of some of the human characters’ thoughts and feelings are based on what those subjects shared with me and on my years of shadowing them. Although it is impossible to fully understand the interior lives of animals, several sections in the book attempt to explore those landscapes, based on detailed reporting into the animals’ histories, on interviews with the keepers and other humans who knew them best, on my own observations of them, and on readings from research on animal cognition, communication, and behavior. For specifics on how each chapter was reported, please see the endnotes.

Eleven elephants. One plane. Hurtling together across the sky.

The scene sounds like a dream conjured by Dalí. And yet there it was, playing out high above the Atlantic. Inside the belly of a Boeing 747, eleven young elephants were several hours into a marathon flight from South Africa to the United States. Nothing could have prepared them for what they were experiencing. These were not circus animals, accustomed to captivity. All of these elephants were wild, extracted at great expense and through staggering logistics from their herds inside game reserves in Swaziland. All were headed for zoos in San Diego and Tampa.

The date was August 21, 2003, a Thursday morning that stretched on and on. The elephants were confined in eleven metal crates inside the semidarkness of the freighter jet’s cavernous hold. Before they were loaded into the plane, they had been sedated. Now they were woozy and not particularly hungry. Some lay on their sides, slumbering. A few stood and snaked their trunks toward a human who moved up and down the line of crates, replenishing their water, murmuring reassurance.

“Calm down,” Mick Reilly told them. “It’s not so bad.”

Mick was thirty-two, with light brown hair and the permanent tan of someone who has grown up in the African bush. As usual, he was clad in his safari khakis and an air of quiet self-assurance. His arms and legs bore the faint scratches of acacia thorns. His weathered boots were powdered with the red dust of the veldt. Everything about him testified to a lifetime of wading through waist-high turpentine grass and thickets of aloe and leadwood trees, of tracking lions and buffalos and rhinos and carefully counting their young, of hunting poachers armed with AK-47s.

Mick and his father ran the two game reserves where the elephants had lived in Swaziland, a small landlocked kingdom nestled in the southern tip of Africa. Mick and these eleven elephants had come of age together in the parks. They recognized his scent and voice, the rhythms of his speech. He knew their names and histories and temperaments—which of them was excitable and which more serene, where each of them ranked in the hierarchies of their herds. Watching them in their crates, he could not help but wonder what they were thinking. Surely they could hear the thrum of the jet engines and feel the changes in altitude and air pressure. Through the pads of their feet, equipped with nerve endings highly attuned to seismic information, they would have had no trouble detecting the vibrations from the fuselage. But what could they decipher from this multitude of sensations? Did they have any notion that they were flying?

“It’s OK,” Mick told them. “You’ll be fine.”

Not everyone, he realized, agreed with his assessment. He was tired of the long and bitter debate that had raged on both sides of the Atlantic in the months before this flight. Tired of the petitions and the lawsuits and the denunciations from people who had never set foot in Swaziland, never seen for themselves what was happening inside the game reserves. There simply was not enough room for all of the elephants anymore, not without having the trees destroyed, the parks devastated, and other species threatened. Either some of the elephants had to be killed, or they could be sent to new homes in these two zoos. Mick saw no other way to save them. He had heard the protests from the animal-rights groups, insisting that for the elephants any fate would be preferable to a zoo, that it would be better for them to die free than live as captives.

Such logic made him shake his head. The righteous declarations. All this talk of freedom as if it were some pure and limitless river flowing through the wild, providing for every creature and allowing them all to live in harmony. On an overcrowded planet, where open land is disappearing and more species slip toward extinction every day, freedom is not so easily defined. Should one species—any species—have the right to multiply and consume at will, even as it nudges others toward oblivion?

As far as Mick could tell, nature cared about survival, not ideology. And on this plane, the elephants had been given a chance. Before his family had agreed to send them to the two zoos, he had visited the facilities where they would be housed and had talked with the keepers who would care for them. He was confident the elephants would be treated humanely and be given as much space to move as possible. Still, there was no telling how they would adjust to being taken from everything they knew. Wild elephants are accustomed to ranging through the bush for miles a day. They are intelligent, self-aware, emotional animals. They bond. They rage and grieve. True to their reputation, they remember.

How would the exiles react when they realized their days and nights were encircled as never before? When they understood, as much as they could, that they would not see Africa again? Either they had been rescued or enslaved. Or both.

The 747 raced westward, carrying its living cargo toward the new world.

The savanna, alive just after sunset.
Anvil bats search for fruit in the falling light. A bush baby wails somewhere in the trees. Far off to the east, along the Mozambique border, the Lebombo Mountains stand shrouded in black velvet.

A fat moon, nearly full, shines down on a throng of elephants chewing their way through what’s left of the umbrella acacias inside Mkhaya Game Reserve. A small patch of green in the center of Swaziland, Mkhaya is one of the parks the elephants on the 747 were taken from. This was their home. Before deciding what to think about the fate of the eleven headed for the zoos, it helps to see the wild place they came from. To know what their lives were like before they ended up on the plane and to understand the realities that pushed them toward that surreal journey.

An evening tour through Mkhaya is especially dramatic—climbing into a Land Rover at the end of a golden afternoon, then lurching along the park’s winding dirt roads, searching for the elephants who remain. Mkhaya’s herd is a good-sized group—sixteen in all, counting the calves—and even though they are the largest land mammals on earth, they are not always easy to find. Elephants, it turns out, are surprisingly stealthy.

As the sunlight fades, other species declare their presence. Throngs of zebras and wildebeests thunder by in the distance, trailing dust clouds. Cape buffalo snort and raise their horns and position themselves in front of their young. Giraffes stare over treetops, their huge brown eyes blinking, then lope away in seeming slow motion. But no elephants.

A couple of hours into the tour, the visitors begin to wonder if they will glimpse any of the hulking creatures tonight. Then suddenly the entire group seems to materialize from nowhere. The driver has unwittingly turned a corner into the center of the herd. On both sides of the road, elephants loom like great gray ghosts. They’re in the middle of their evening feeding, knocking down trees, snapping branches and chewing on leaves and peeling bark with their tusks. As the Land Rover sputters to a stop in their midst, the elephants turn their massive heads toward the intruders. Two calves hurry toward their mothers and aunts. A towering bull, his tusks faintly glowing in the moonlight, moves from the shadows into a patch of red leopard grass only twenty feet away.

“Here’s my big boy,” says a woman in the back row of the vehicle. “Come over and say hello.”

As if on cue, the bull steps into the road and lumbers toward the Land Rover. He doesn’t appear angry. Just insistent. Behind the wheel, the tour guide quickly restarts the engine, then shifts into reverse. He’s hurrying backward down the road when, in his mirror, he spies one of the females waiting beside a bushwillow. As the vehicle approaches, the cow bends the tree across the road and holds it there, directly in the humans’ path. She makes it look easy.

Without slowing down, the guide spins the wheel, taking the Rover off the road—still in reverse—and maneuvering around both the elephant and her roadblock. He keeps his foot on the gas, tearing and bumping backward down a little hillside and across a dry riverbed until he’s sure none of the herd is following.

The guests inside the Land Rover try to process what they’ve just witnessed. What was that elephant doing?

The guide smiles, shrugs. “She was just being naughty. They’ve got a sense of humor—more than people realize.”


Another shrug. “She was definitely trying to block our way,” says the guide. “It’s just not good to drive through an elephant herd. They don’t like you to drive through. They want you to listen to them.”

Driving back to camp, he explains that elephants get irritated when they’re not in control. He talks about how helicopter pilots, flying over herds, have seen elephants grab small trees and shake them, as if trying to swat the helicopters from the sky.

Here in Mkhaya, encounters between elephants and humans tend to be more relaxed. Every day, the herd indulges the curiosity of the tourists who approach in Land Rovers with their camcorders. Usually the elephants seem curious as well, walking within a few feet of the humans, calmly reaching forward with their trunks. Still, whenever the two species meet, anything can happen. Once, a park employee was bicycling to work when he accidentally pedaled into the middle of a herd. The rattling of his bike spooked a mother with her calf, and the cow attacked, chasing down the man and then picking him up and throwing him several times. He survived—barely.

In Swaziland, as in other parts of Africa, elephants have struggled to hold their own against humans. Americans tend to think of Africa as a continent of vast, unclaimed spaces, where species can roam to the horizon and beyond. In reality, humans have occupied so much of the continent that many animals are confined inside game parks. Although these parks are often huge—sometimes stretching across hundreds of miles—the animals increasingly find their movement restricted by human boundaries, human considerations, human priorities.

As our species paves over the planet, squeezing other species out of existence, we seek solace in the myth of unlimited freedom. Inside our subdivisions, we sit with our kids and watch
The Lion King
, singing along as Simba and Pumbaa and Timon parade across the endless veldt and majestically celebrate the circle of life. But the truth is, the circle of life is constantly shrinking. If you’re going to see a lion, even in Africa, it will almost certainly be on a tour inside a fenced park.

The conflict unfolds in miniature inside Swaziland, a country smaller than New Jersey. Although elephants once thrived here, the only two places where they can be found today are inside Mkhaya and at another fenced reserve, Hlane Royal National Park. Compared with the mammoth game parks in South Africa and other neighboring countries, Mkhaya and Hlane are tiny. Only a few dozen elephants live inside the two parks.

Fifty years ago, not a single member of their species could be found in Swaziland. They had all long since died off or been killed by hunters. Then Ted Reilly, Mick’s father, stepped in. Ted was born and raised in Swaziland and spent his childhood in the bush, watching antelope graze in the distance, studying how kingfishers bore holes into the dirt to make their nests. As a young man he left home to study conservation, working as a ranger in game reserves in nearby South Africa and Zimbabwe. When he returned to Swaziland in 1960 to help run his family’s farm, he discovered that during his years away almost all of the country’s wildlife had been wiped out. Traveling through regions that had once teemed with dozens of species, he found them all gone.

Reilly decided to bring the animals back. First he turned the family farm in Mlilwane into a wildlife sanctuary. He planted trees and savanna grasses, built dams to create wetlands, then stocked the new habitat with species he had imported from other countries or had captured himself. His adventures bestowed him with a larger-than-life reputation. He tore through the bush in an old jeep named Jezebel, pursuing impala and warthogs and any poachers foolish enough to venture inside the sanctuary. He scoured the Swazi countryside, gathering scorpions and frogs and lizards. He had a female hippo from a London zoo flown in, then ferried a male from the same zoo across the English Channel and had it flown in from Paris. His rangers captured a nine-foot crocodile on the banks of the Nkomati River, then drove the thrashing reptile to Mlilwane in a pickup truck.

One harrowing day, Reilly and a crew of thirty were transporting a white rhino that they’d tranquilized and then hoisted onto a flatbed truck. The men, seated around the sleeping prize, were startled when the rhino awoke enough to snap through his ropes and stand up beside them on the back of the moving vehicle. Their armored captive was groggy, but no less fearsome. Some of the men jumped off. Others yelled until the driver stopped and the rhino could be restrained again.

The campaign to restore the country’s wildlife inevitably drew the attention of King Sobhuza II. The Swazi monarch, one of the last kings to reign over an African country, was famous for having fifty wives, some of whom he chose at the annual Reed Dance, a great tribal celebration where thousands of bare-breasted virgins undulated in public and paid homage to his majesty and the queen mother. As a national symbol of fertility, the king was expected to have many wives and produce many children. In nearby South Africa, where Swaziland was often viewed as a backwater, mention of the dance and the king’s topless maidens prompted eye-rolling. The jibes of outsiders were of little consequence to Reilly. A royalist through and through, he dismissed these naysayers as ignorant of his country’s ancient traditions. Besides, his battles against hunters and poachers had earned him more than a few foes in the Swazi parliament. If he was to prevail, he needed the king’s support.

Sobhuza, who longed for the return of wild creatures, proved a dedicated ally. The sanctuary at Mlilwane was only the beginning. Working closely with the king and his successor, his son Mswati III, Reilly went on to create the country’s first national park at Hlane and then opened Mkhaya, a reserve designated for the protection of endangered species such as black rhinos and Nguni cattle. A nonprofit trust was formed to operate the three parks. Reilly trained more rangers, including his son Mick, and stocked the land with more species—lions, sable antelopes, buffalos, cheetahs.

BOOK: Zoo Story
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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