What explains a passion for an animal and a faraway place? I certainly did not grow up with live elephants. When I was a kid in South Carolina, there were no elephants in sight. Not even at the zoo, a rather pathetic affair with open-air cages–it was warm 9 months of the year–where creatures stared or paced and made me rather uneasy.
But within the pages of the Babar books – stories of an elephant family with grey pliable bodies, and large, picture-hat ears, and trunks like arms on their faces–I met an elephant family to adore. The girl wore a tutu and in her pink toe-dance slippers, she was even more awkward than I in my orthopedic shoes. Her father was Babar, King of the animals, and the mother his Queen. The boy (all had perky, intriguing French names–after all, their author was French), the boy, as I recollect, was rather docile. Now and then he did something naughty, but never destructive. He had no toy gun. He never played cowboys and Indians, the way boys in our Old Citadel complex did, shooting at each other around the edges of our elephant grey buildings. The Babars were far from a violent family, rather musical and arty, a bit like my own. From their stories, I grew a companionable love for them which has never abated.
Time passed. I moved to New York, Atlanta, Kansas City, finally Minneapolis/St. Paul. By this time I was 25, I’d seen real elephants, probably at a circus or two. But my youthful zest for them, my sense that they deserved honor and respect, similar to what I would give my parents, friends, teachers–that had quieted. Then, in the early 1990s, remarried, my daughter grown into an accomplished teen, I was standing in my Saint Paul kitchen staring into the brightness of a summer backyard. Seeing not the tall elm lifting its fountaining shade or the birds feeding on the feeders. But African elephants slaughtered for their tusks and left to rot.
It was a horrific hallucination–their tusks hacked off, their bodies–the grey children huddled beside the huge parents–brought low by powerful rifles. That this was happening half the world collapsed. I felt as if it was taking place just beyond my own backyard. The shots broke a pact I’d made unconsciously as a child. A pact of love and honor, which extended far beyond my own skin to include elephants as a tribe. And becasuse I was one of the kind who had killed them, I was responsible.
Now bear with me a moment. Let’s imagine that the 3,000 Americans who have been shot between the slaughter of the 22 innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary in late October and the present moment are elephants. Let’s imagine that these huge, gentle giants are protective parents, whose family groups extend to aunts and uncles, oldsters and youngsters. When a small elephant is trapped in a sink hole, somewhere in Africa, the child’s aunts and mother gather around, drop to their knees and lift the baby elephant out by their trunks. It is a touching sight to behold: the largest land animals extending to their child the care and concern we extend to our own children, just as did the teachers at Sandy Hook–those who died and those who survived–did that horrible day. Extending themselves to help the small ones of their kind. Not parents or other direct relations, but caring people whose immediate, instinctual response was to protect the innocent.
Now, another slaughter is taking place. Over the last two months, I have received word from the African Wildlife Foundation and other wildlife welfare efforts that large groups of elephants–thirty or forty at a time, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, children–are being gunned down by high-powered rifles. All shot within seconds by automatic weapons with huge magazines of bullets.
There is an economic motive for shooting the elephants: selling the adults’ tusks to China and other Asian countries where ivory is deemed an aphrodisiac. International agreements exist against trade in ivory, but there are obviously not observed. I imagine (bolstered with information gathered over the years) that poor Africans (in the Cameroons currently) do the killing (like Herod’s henchmen in the Bible when another slaughter of the innocents took place). What they make by this slaughter is little compared to what middlemen capture in the sale.
The motive that spurred the young man who killed at Sandy Hook may never be entirely known, though someday I hope the remainder of his family comes forth and speaks about him. Knowledge will help focus our attempts to outlaw automatic weapons and large magazines of bullets, and create a system of background checks to retard the sale of guns to the mentally ill.
But not until we as a people fall deeply in love with human life, not until we come to accept that we are harboring a culture of death by our unwillingness to protect the innocence in ourselves, not until we see that we are selling our own for a pittance, and allowing groups far from the violence to suck on the rewards, only then will we cry out, “Let us be brave. Let us truly stand by the tenets of our country’s faith. Let us truly link LIBERTY and the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS to the bedrock of being, to LIFE. .
I could not see straight.