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

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