Oct. 14, 2010
I had the ineffable joy of introducing our 20-month old grandson to the Washington Zoo this past weekend. We had talked to him about all the wonderful animals he might see there. Gorillas and orangutans, the famous panda, lions and tigers, all of these could be seen just an hour from our Annapolis home. The zoo is free, but it costs to park. For the people of Washington, however, this wonder is just a short Metro hop from downtown.
When Congress is in recess, as it is now, the zoo is the best show in town.
We have a tradition in our family, one shared with me by my dear, late seventh grade civics teacher. Whenever you do something for the first time, Joe Zeichner taught, you should say a shehechayanu, an ancient Hebrew prayer. We do the English version:
Blessed art Thou, O Lord
Master of the Universe
That Thou hast preserved us in life
To savor this experience for the first time.
Taking a little boy on his first trip to the zoo is an experience to savor. I didnt know that otters make a chirping sound, did you? Luke the lion was out on a rise, sunning himself in all his majesty. He didnt look at us straight on, but showed only his noble profile. He seemed quite satisfied with himself. He hadnt brought down any gnus or wildebeest for the prides dinner. But he had welcomed two litters of his own lion cubs last summer.
Seven little lions in one year! I was on leave from my job, so I restrained myself from any comments about Washington, D.C. and its failure to defend monogamy.
The biggest attraction of the day, of course, was the visit to the elephants. Our grandson was primed. We had been talking to him for months about elephantsor, as he calls them, elfanents. He was go excited that he greeted us by putting his hand up above his nose and trumpeting an elephant sound.
During his last visit to our home with his loving parents, I had the privilege of showing him the video of Ella of the Elephants. Its a classic documentary of an African elephant herd studied in the 1990s. Ella is the matriarch of the herd. (I had to fast forward past the part where Ella is about to become a mother again.)
We see her calf, Eli, born after 22 months in the womb, and weighing in at more than the average newborns 260 pounds. Eli was so big, so cramped for so long that the tendons in his front legs seem not to stretch. We watch and are instantly drawn to this young creatures plight. He walks, but only painfully on his front knees. If he cannot stretch up to nurse from Ella, he will wither and die.
We are told that the animal kingdom is all red in tooth and claw. Its survival of the fittest out there, you know. Natures way is best, and all that. So we are half expecting the herd to walk off and leave Eli to the hyenas and the buzzards.
They do no such thing. All the senior elephants gather around Eli and encourage him, caressing him with their trunks. They walk to the water, but very slowly, allowing ample time for Eli to hobble along on his knees.
Soon, miraculously, we see him stretching out his legs. No wonder he couldnt stretch them out in the womb. This is one tall young elephant. In a few days, Eli can run with the herd. He has not been abandoned.
When Ella and the herd come upon the skeletons of other elephants, the victims of poachers who killed them for their ivory tusks, we see an amazing scene. Several of the elephants hold the skulls of the dear departed. They seem to be trying to communicate with their dead. Its as if they know whose skull it is.
Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well, Horatio, Shakespeare has his Hamlet tell his friend.
Yoricks skull brings back many happy memories to the young prince of Denmark.
Im sure that animal behaviorists will explain it all away. But Im stunned by these great animals tenderness toward one of their own kind. They seem unwilling to give up the memory of a beloved friend. And what memories these elephants have!
Sharing elfanents with our grandson forms a bond across the generations in our family.
My late dad, Leslie Morrison, was rescued during World War II when his ship was torpedoed. He and his shipmates were brought ashore in South Africa.
That 1943 rescue may have been the first time my father saw these greatest of all land animals. I do know that Pop never tired of watching African elephants on television.
Seeing how much these animals loved and protected each other, seeing especially how they nurtured their youngest members, I gained a new appreciation for my dad. He had been orphaned at six years old.
Maybe thats why he was so devoted to us. From the day he returned from the sea until the day he died some forty-six years later, we knew where he was every night of his life.
To him, we were his herd, his love. And now, I thank God I get to share that kind of love with my own descendants.