A personal note for once. Irony-free; soppy; mawkish, even. A side of me you don’t know. Never mind – this is both public and personal, so I want to go with it.

Bad. Ashes on head department. Sniffing; closing throat; more sniffing; eyes filling; another kleenex gone. Bad, bad, bad news. Horrible news. (I let out such an outraged pained ‘No!’ when I heard it…)

At the Woodland Park Zoo, it was like a death in the family. Plainly distraught, even barely able to speak at times for choking back tears, zoo administrators announced the death of 6 ½-year-old elephant Hansa, who was found dead in her stall Friday, her mother standing by her side.

I watched them on the local news last night, and it’s true: they could barely talk, they kept losing it, I’m losing it in remembering them losing it. Don’t laugh – elephants are like that. Elephants are like that, and as for a six-year-old elephant you saw being born and taking her first steps and going for her first swim – well.

And her mother was standing by her side when the keeper found her. I wondered where Chai was; now I know: standing next to her. [pause to get another kleenex]

The thing is, I know Chai; I used to be one of her keepers, when she was younger than Hansa was yesterday. Chai was one of my babies, so I was very caught up in the whole exciting (and quite dangerous) adventure of her trip to Dickerson Park Zoo in St Louis to breed, and her long gestation, and the birth, and Hansa’s adorable infancy. Elephant breeding is very difficult; we used to discuss it a lot when I was there, when the new facility was being planned; it was very worrying having four cows and not breeding any of them. So Hansa’s birth was a colossal triumph, in all sorts of ways – for conservation, for good zoo practice, for the survival of both Chai and Hansa. So it’s a terrible, heartbreaking, shattering disappointment.

But it’s also just plain personal. Elephants are like that. Elephants are special – that’s not news. They’re complicated, they’re affectionate, they’re tall; you bond with them. Take my word for it. I’ve worked with them – I’ve given them baths, taken them for walks, ridden on their backs, scratched their tongues (they like that), played hide and seek with them. You bond with them.

Chai was a great kid. A bit of a knot-head: she had a habit of bolting when we took her for walks, which was very bad and worrying, because of course it’s terribly dangerous, and if we couldn’t get her out of the habit she wouldn’t be able to leave the yard for walks, and that would not be good. But she was a great kid all the same, and she turned out to be a great adult. Now she’s lost her Hansa. Elephants are very, very devoted. It’s just horrible.

I hate to think of the keepers. I know most of them, and I hate to think of them. I used to creep myself out occasionally, imagining being the first one into the barn in the morning (as I usually was) and finding one of the ‘phants dead. Yesterday one of the keepers had that experience. I keep imagining it. You’d know right away – you never ever ever come in to find any elephants asleep on the floor; not ever; they’re always up and milling around and when you come in they rumble and trumpet. (Rumbling is a sound they make up inside their heads, a little like purring; strangers think it’s growling but it’s not, it’s pleasure and greeting.) To come into the barn and find an elephant lying still on the floor – well there would be little room for doubt.

I heard of a headstone inscription on the radio once: ‘It is a fearful thing to love that which death can touch.’ It is.

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