Can’t Say As I Ever Did
by Emily Hipchen
A little while ago, Chuck—my husband—and I went to Busch Gardens in Tampa for his birthday. We don’t do roller coasters, only the zoo and gardens part. Chuck takes endless pictures and dreams of a time when he can turn everything into a neat tropical paradise with naturalized orchids and orderly beds of coleus and heliconia (my God, the plant has its own website). He also studies the water features, picturing the day when he can stop slaving for McKesson and get on with his real work: pushing water around a yard that mimics an Amazonian jungle.
After two abortive attempts to get on the Stanleyville Express and head out to the faux-Serengeti, we decided to confine ourselves to the faux-Nairobi and environs, and just watch the animals we like best. I bee-lined for the elephants, who were then in a new habitat as part of the Rhino Rally ride.
We got there at feeding time, which was excellent because that meant there were keepers there I could grill. The keeper closest to me was leaning on the fence, trying to trample down some dork from Long Island asking things about whether zoo-goers try to worship the elephants because, in some countries, you know they worship rats, yessirree, rats. He saw it on television, he said. His voice is like the sound a dentist’s drill makes before you’re on laughing gas.
The keeper nods, makes little noises in her throat, says, “Maybe, maybe,” when up trundles The Idiot with her questions about carnivorous elephants.
“What do elephants eat?” she asks. Behind the keeper, an elephant shoves hay into its mouth like a machine. It chews and sways on its feet.
“Hay,” says the keeper.
“They don’t eat meat, right?”
“Nope, just—hay. And some carrots and fruit.” The keeper gestures at two pails filled with elephant food: carrots and fruit.
“So, if I were next to one of them,” continues The Idiot, “it wouldn’t eat me.”
“Nope,” says the trainer, her eyes getting that look I get the third time someone asks me about capitalizing the first letter of a sentence. “Just hay, carrots, fruit, vegetables. They’re vegetarians.”
The woman backs away from the fence. “Oh. They look like they might eat me.” She shivers a little, crosses her arms, backs into the man behind her who steadies her and himself by grabbing her shoulders. She jumps and apologizes.
“Not unless you’re a vegetable,” says the keeper. I sense we both have doubts at this point and perhaps, if given a chance, an elephant would eat take her for a carrot and nip her in half. In fact, to confess: I sort of wanted that to happen.
After Bozo and The Idiot, I figure I must have been a dream, because at least I knew what elephants ate and wasn’t rasping off her eardrums with my accent.
So, when I could wedge my way into the conversation, I wondered, in conversation-stopping detail, about what happened to the dead elephants. I wondered, out loud and specifically, if they were fed to the tigers. Or if the dead gazelles were. What about, say, the rabbits or equally prolific animals at the zoo? Was there culling?
Come to find out they get Aramark (look it up) just like the rest of us. Only the animal kind.
My questions led the keeper to opine about Mim the elephant, who had died recently, then to tell me in detail which elephants were dominant in the herd, then to opine further that there were no bull elephants at Busch Gardens (this with a description of early elephant musth, caused by the culling of older males in wild populations). Then she told me they were doing a breeding program there trying to inseminate four of the elephants.
So of course I asked how. I mean if you’re a zoo, do you just get everyone naked, set out a barrel of zoo-juice (hay saturated with grain alcohol) and wait for the magic?
I knew that most cows are artificially inseminated these days because cattle mating can be dangerous (thank you to my long years at UWW and Clemson for this information). I wondered if elephants were equally—challenged.
Apparently, they can be.
The keeper then described the process and apparatus.
Yes, she said, the handlers (and I presume the elephants themselves) preferred actual mating. But they had a—tool—which allowed
(graphic content follows)
doctors to do both a vaginal and a rectal exam simultaneously, while inseminating the animal.
She said, I’m nearly quoting here, “We don’t use harnesses or chains or straps or anything to restrain the animal. She can go ahead and mount or not. It’s totally voluntary.”
Which made me wonder about a lot of stuff, and I’m sure you’re wondering, too. But I didn’t know how to ask, short of saying, “Um, can I WATCH?” which is really what I wanted to do, just so I could get everything straight in my head—the mechanics of it and all—and see The Tool itself. It must look like something out of Elephant Adam and Eve.
So then I got to wondering how many D batteries it took. Or if it needed a car battery. Or if the insemination room had TV’s with pay-per-view, or if elephants were at all visual in their lusts—
Can you imagine?