July 9, 2012
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Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild, and the excellent Dear Sugar columns) was interviewed by the Rumpus. She writes:
“One thing that I think is important when it comes to bravery, is that it’s not necessarily about doing something and not being afraid. It’s about doing something even though you are afraid, and I think that idea has been very powerful for me over time. Whenever I’ve written something that makes me scared, which I write an awful lot, I remember that being scared is not an indication that I shouldn’t do it. It’s actually an indication that I should.”
This made me think of elephants. A year and a half ago I was in Thailand and having a conversation with a man who works almost exclusively with elephants that have killed more than one person. Mien San Dee is just over 5 feet fall and he was born with one leg much shorter than the other. He walks with a pronounced limp. He is slight, soft spoken. He has three elephants staked within a few hundred feet of his house that have each killed before, sometimes more than three different people. No one else in his village wants these elephants. They are smart, can be calculating, they weigh more than a car and move quickly. Many elephants are angry that they are chained. Every one else is too scared to be near them.
“Why aren’t you scared?” I asked Mien San Dee.
“I am,” he said. “That is very important.”
April 19, 2011
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Thank you Joanna Ebenstein (of the Morbid Anatomy Library) and the Coney Island Museum for letting me talk about animal madness
…in honor of Topsy, electrocuted at Coney Island in 1903.
April 13, 2011
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Dear New Yorkers, if you’re in town this week get yourself to the Congress for Curious Peoples on Coney Island. There is a bearded lady who juggles machetes. A killer clown named Koko. Tons of lectures about fireworks, science as spectacle and a show by the world’s smallest fire-eating lady.
If you stay through the afternoon on Sunday you’ll find me talking about Tip the elephant. And probably John Daniel the gorilla too.
Time Out NY lists their top five things to see at the Congress.
March 2, 2011
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…even when I’m still really far away,” said Jon. “She will start calling out for me before I’ve turned down the road.”
Jon has been Mosha’s mahout since she was two years old (now she is five). When she was seven months old, and walking with her mother in the forest near the Thai/Burmese border, Mosha stepped on a landmine. She lost the bottom half of her front right leg and was left with a stump. Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital took Mosha in and have since made a prosthesis for her (which she gamely wears, but does not enjoy. It’s hot and she fiddles with the buckles when it’s on, even though it does help her walk). That said, it’s Mosha’s relationship with her mahout, Jon, who is twenty-six-years old and with her almost 24 hours a day, every day of the week, that blows me away. I first met Jon and Mosha over a year ago. She was a bit smaller and they were still taking naps together in the heat of the afternoon (on blue gym mats, that help her get up and down). Mosha laid down first and then waited for Jon to curl up next to her. He would play idly with her trunk while she fell asleep and then he would often fall asleep too. He says that now she’s too big for this but still, Mosha doesn’t like to sleep if Jon isn’t with her. Now he sits on a chair nearby when she naps. Even at night, Mosha will often wake up, throwing her mats around, until Jon wakes up (he sleeps less than ten yards away) and comes to talk to her. He is rarely outside of her trunk reach and this is how she likes it.
Encouraging Mosha to nap
Since she is unstable on her feet, and lives at a hospital where the only other elephants are sick elephants who need their own particular care, Mosha hasn’t had an elephant family or friend since her mother left (to go back to work after Mosha was weaned). Jon is her main companion and she treats him as such. FAE is looking for a suitable elephant to keep her company but it hasn’t been easy. Healthy elephants are expensive and can earn more money working in tourist camps than keeping a lone elephant company at the hospital. There is also the risk that another elephant could too-easily push Mosha over, injuring and possibly killing her, without even meaning too. So for now, she stays with Jon, and Jon stays with her. For him, this job is a good one, the hospital pays a lot more than if he was a mahout at a tourist camp and since they give him all of his meals and a room, he can save everything he earns to give to his family, and eventually, buy some land of his own in his home village a few hours away.
Here Jon tries to sweep up. Mosha gets interested in the camera and touching the tripod, then in getting Jon to pay attention to her (by laying down on his pile).
February 26, 2011
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As far as I can tell, captive working Asian elephants make tools primarily to reach itchy places. I filmed Mae Perm, a female elephant (who is no longer working, but instead living at Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand) select the right piece of bamboo and then carefully break it to make it just the size and shape she wanted. No one handed her this piece of bamboo and this was not something she was “trained” to do. Elephants learn to make tools by watching other elephants do it. And for some who do not live with other elephants, perhaps by watching humans or simply by getting creative on their own. I have seen Asian elephants use whatever is at hand (rope, logs, sticks, rough fabric) to fashion scratchers or fly-swatters for themselves.
Of course wild elephants use tools also. And here, a few more surprising tool users….from Wired Magazine.
February 13, 2011
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I spent the last three days at Elephant Nature Park in Mae Teng Valley, Thailand. I really recommend a volunteer-stay here as a way to be up close and personal with elephants…whose ages, afflictions, personalities, quirks, preferences, disputes, happinesses and frustrations are each on full display. Lek Chaillert is a fascinating woman and so are the rest of the staff and long term volunteers. The friendships that have formed between individual elephants Lek has rescued over the years are, to me, the most interesting part of their work. Last year I spent a while at the Park…interviewing Lek, getting to know Jodi Thomas and Michelle (two long term residents of the Park) and watching mahouts and elephants interact. I also washed a lot of squash, cut a lot of corn, and shoveled a lot of elephant dung. This week I went back for only a quick visit…and I took my new camera.
I set up my tripod pretty far away from Mae Perm, and her longtime friend, Jokia. But as soon as I set up, Mae Perm came right over. She was extremely interested in the tripod and camera and put her eye right up against the lens. Then she leaned her cheek on the microphone. I picked everything up and moved away.
But she followed me. This went on for a while. Until I finally moved on top of a small hill nearby. Her interest, apparently, was not so great to make her climb. Or maybe she did not want to get too far away from her closest companion, the completely-blind female elephant Jokia.
(Thank you Jodi Thomas for the images)