Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Back in the mid-1980s I "interviewed" the two Asian elephants at The Atlanta Zoo. Their keepers were so gracious and the elephants so charming, that I still love their story and want to share it with you.

Coca II Grande Dame of The Atlanta Zoo Circa Mid-1980s

The largest ones weigh over eight tons -- that's about four Lincolns (80s editions) with a couple of Hondas thrown in. At one time they lived on every continent except Australia. They've been hunted by primitives and sophisticates, used as war machines by Hannibal, as executioners by Romans, as industrial workers by Indians, and as entertainers by Americans. They are the world's largest land animals -- elephants.

Coca, "Atlanta's Red Elephant" Strolls Around Her Yard On A Beautiful April Day

Two of these behemoths, with their distinct and endearing personalities, delight Atlantans daily as the Atlanta Zoo. Being Asian elephants, however, they are smaller than the Africans.

Asian bulls stand a mere nine feet at the shoulder and weigh a measly six tons (only three Lincolns). Cows are more diminutive, standing seven feet and weighing a willowy five tons or so. Coca II, grande dame in Atlanta, weighs 7,000 pounds. And, according to Atlanta Zoo Senior Keeper Ed Myers, she is the world's only red elephant.

"Coca loves to work the Georgia red clay into a paste to wallow in," Keeper Fred Alvey added during an interview at the zoo in April. Normally a giant gray prune, Coca ranges from deep red when she's covered with wet mud to pale pink when the clay dries to dust. There aren't many pink elephants around, but one usually can be found shortly after an Atlanta downpour.

On pretty days, Coca strolls with queenly dignity around her outdoor enclosure, haughtily holding court for her admirers, who occasionally bring her tasty edibles, such as peanuts or bread. If she's feeling playful, she may pinch the hand offering a treat with the surprisingly strong tip of her trunk.

Coca's playfulness causes her keepers to treat her with great respect and caution. "While Coca can be gentle and charming with guests," Alvey said, "if you turn your back, she might sneak up and try to grab you with her trunk. She wants to sling you around, which could be dangerous." She seems to get a kick out of deliberately pushing her keepers into dung, snatching their tools, and "rattailing" them with her trunk.

"She'll stand around pretending she's not paying any attention to you as you work," Myers said. "then suddenly you'll see her trunk flying at you. It's like a power pole; it looks bigger than it is. I stay far enough away to jump clear if I see it coming at me."

Twinkles and Ed Myers Inside The Elephant Barn

"Although Coca is mischievous, she obeys commands more quickly than Twinkles," Alvey said. Myers, who has taken care of the elephants for 31 years, added, "Coca and Twinkles are trained and can do a routine. They can kneel, stand on two feet, sit, lay down. When we had four elephants, we had two shows every day. It's hard to have an elephant show with only one elephant, but Coca and Twinkles won't work together."

Twinkles, at 13, would like to be friends with Coca, Myers said. But the domineering female, in her prime at 40, won't accept the bobby-soxer. "She pushes Twinkles around and butts her," Myers said. "When we had four elephants, Alice, the dominant one, kept the other three straight." Now there is no elephant to protect Twinkles, so her keepers keep her and Coca apart. Coca roams outside in the morning and is shut in the barn in the afternoon. Twinkles is allowed out in the afternoon, but she is timid and doesn't venture outside for long or go far. "She stands in the doorway peeping out," Alvey said. Possibly she will be more assertive when she grows up.

Now she is "like any adolescent," according to Alvey. "She behaves like a human teenager, with their vices and virtues. She's generous -- gives you a carrot if she likes you. Affectionate -- drapes her trunk over your shoulder and sticks her tongue out to be rubbed, that's her favorite caress. She can be pig headed -- if want her to move and she doesn't want to, she has a tantrum: squeals, spins in a circle and doesn't move away. She is impatient -- if her food is late, she kicks the door, trumpets and screams."

Myers Feeds Twinkles An Apple

When I slipped inside Twinkles' barn to take pictures, Myers called, "Come here, baby." The 4,500-pound "baby" quickly moved her silent mass to the doorway, reaching out with her trunk to investigate me and nuzzle Myers. "A caged elephant is like a child," said Myers as he patted Twinkles' trunk. "It must be looked after."

Viewed from the distance necessitated by bars and glass installed in the barn, Twinkles doesn't look very big. But standing next to her, she seems huge. She wanted to cuddle, edging tree-trunk legs closer to me, turning her brown eye down to have a good look. I stroked Twinkles' hairy trunk and, when she lifted it and opened her mouth, I popped in a few apples. Twinkles reciprocated by posing for pictures, doing a few tricks, and, always, pressing and pressing nearer, while I, always, backed nervously away.

But Twinkles remained a perfect lady, apparently only wanting attention. She likes for Myers to throw a Frisbee, which she doesn't catch, but chases. She likes to play with a basketball, though she tries to stand on it, so it doesn't last long. Both elephants love to be hosed down and scrubbed. (Note: There was no elephant pool then.)

It is unfortunate that Coca will not accept Twinkles. In the wild, elephants are social and cooperative, even surrounding and protecting an injured companion and supporting it while leading it to safety. They live in herds of 15 to 20 cows with their young, led by a dominant female. Junior bulls hang around the edge of the herd; and a large bull oversees all from a distance, sometimes having a small bull to act as scout. When calves are born, after a gestation of 20 months for a female and 22 months for a male, they weigh about 200 pounds and stand at three feet. The herd surrounds the mother while she is calving. The mother and other cows blow dust on the newborn to dry it. Within two hours, the baby stands and suckles, and joins the herd. If danger threatens, the mother seeks another female to help protect her calf. If mom is killed, another cow, even if she has offspring of her own, adopts the infant.

Coca Strides Away

Coca and Twinkles were infants when they joined the Atlanta Zoo -- both were two years old. They have grown to love their keepers over the years, staying close and following them when possible.

When Alvey joined Myers and Coca at the outdoor enclosure, Coca patted him with her trunk and left a splotch of red mud on his shirt.

"You knew what you were doing, didn't you?" Alvey said, grinning. He grabbed a handful of grass to wipe some of the mud off. Coca felt through the grass until the tip of her trunk found and fondled Alvey's rubber boot. Then, as though she feared she had shown too much familiarity, Coca blew a long noisy blast through her trunk, gathered her bulk, and majestically strode away.

Beth Back in The 1980s

Monday, November 15, 2010


The Rescued Chipmunk Pup

Recently, in beautiful warm weather, I released my latest little "visitor" into the wild. Rick at Cochran Mill Nature Center supervised my feeding and caring for my little buddy, a chipmunk pup brought to us after a cat attack.

Sadly, many animals do not survive a cat scratch or bite, but this little fellow wasn't injured, except for a kink in his tail. He was also pretty mature: compeletly furred and with his eyes and ears open. Of course, he still had the infantile proportions that make babies so cute -- a large head, big soft eyes, and little body.

Rick Examines The Chipmunk

From the start, my little buddy was wiggly and resistant to handling. He surprised me with his strength and agility. He climbed with his little feet and twisted his back until he almost popped out of my hand. I soon had to swaddle him while I fed him puppy formula from a syringe. He never suckled, but lapped quickly with his tiny tongue, which flickered at an astounding pace, along with his little heart which I felt thumping against my fingers. Even at rest, he breathed so quickly that I thought he was scared. Turns out chipmunks are just speedy little creatures.

Rick Gives My Little Buddy His First Meal

We gave the little guy real food, only suplementing with the formula. He liked pecans, dandelion greens, mashed cooked sweet potatoes,and wax worms, which he ate like an ice cream cone, holding them in his teeny "hands" and nibbling daintily.
Eating A Wax Worm

We offered him acorns, sunflower seeds, fruit, etc. Some of these things he moved around in his habitat and some he carried away and hid in his house. It's hard to say what he actually ate. Before long, I gave up trying to "nurse" him, as he struggled to turn his head away and practically screamed, "Please, lady! I'd rather do it myself!" So I fixed formula with a little cereal and he lapped it out of a bowl.
The Chipmunk Keeps a Close Eye on the Enemy - Hobbs the Cat

One day I offered him an earthworm which he watched from high atop his limb, then worked his way cautiously down to the worm's level. As he approached it, the worm twisted around and moved toward the chipmunk, who turned and fled!

The Little Guy Enjoys A Higher Viewpoint on His Limb

When I had time in the mornings, I liked to sit at my table and watch my little buddy. (I was told it is bad luck to name our fosterlings, so I didn't call him Buddy.) He was the cutest little chipmunk ever! Okay, he looked like all other chipmunks, I guess, but he is the only one I have ever had the opportunity to observe closely. He was brown-turning-russet with black and cream racing stripes on his sides. His face had cream eye-liner with a soft black stripe in the middle. Compared to squirrels, he had Cinderella feet -- so tiny his wicked step-sisters would be envious! And then he had the delicate ears, the twitchy whiskers, the chipmunk cheeks!

He Loved to Dart Through His Toilet Paper Roll

As I watched, he quietly slipped out of his house and scrabbled aorund searching for food. As he grew and matured, he became quicker, flitting back and forth, around, up and down. He was like a squirrel on speed! Often, he wandered around his habitat, as if he were casing the joint. He stood on his back legs and felt along the glass wall like a mime pretending to be in a box. He looked up and jumped, trying to figure out some way to escape.

I had to be very careful to keep him confined. I didn't want to try to catch a lightening ball in this house, especially with 2 dogs and a cat! Actually, he's pretty safe from the dogs, but, as he knows, a cat is fast and deadly.

"HMMM. . . I Wonder What's Out There?"

The little rascal delighted in zipping through his toilet paper roll and streaking into his house, which he barricaded with wood chips at each end when he went to sleep.

He didn't mind if I sat quietly at the table reading and watching him. Even photos didn't bother him. He ignored the flash -- I guess he was used to being a star!

Beginning to Look Grown UP!

Soon it was time to release my little buddy. I would like to keep him safe here and watch him like fish in an aquarium, but he deserves to experience real life. I realize that he probably won't live as long in the wild as he would in captivity. The average adult lifespan is 2 years.

We released him in the woods, so I won't have to worry about people hurting him, but owls, hawks, snakes, coyotes and other predatory mammals find his kind tasty. Rick said he has seen many other chipmunks in this area (some released by Rick), so maybe he'll be safe here.

Let Me Out, Please, I'm Ready!

Chipmunks live alone in burrows, which I read are clean and tidy, as the little guys have "refuse tunnels" where they put feces and debris. They don't really hibernate, but live on caches of food they have hidden and come outside on warm sunny days. Living in the Atlanta area, I guess local chipmunks come out quite a bit throughout the winter.

When we reased him, my little buddy moved a few inches away, then froze sitting up on his haunches for quite a while, little hands folded at his waist. He seemed to listen and observe this new world. Then he began to scratch around a little, then froze again. When we made a noise, he scampered to a boulder and darted under it, stopping just inside the cavity to peer back out. We left him there and went back to work. I was a little sad.

My Little Buddy Just Before Release - Isn't He Handsome Now!

But in spite of the struggle and risks my little buddy will face in nature, he deserves to enjoy the freedom and dignity of a chipmunk's life. As time passes, I hope that Rick will report seeing a little fellow with a kinked tail frolicking amid the autumn leaves and the spring flowers.

Later Note: I returned to the area where I released my little buddy. He met me with cries of joy and introduced me to his wife and pride of young. Then we sat on a big rock and sang "Born Free" for hours! All right, none of this happened, or ever would. It's just my fantasy, but it's difficult to send one's loved ones into the world and let go. Just ask my daughter!

My Little Buddy Eating His Wax Worm