This is (was) Twinkles, the Asian elephant I worked with at the Atlanta Zoo, getting a hug.
That's me with my arms wrapped around her trunk.
Twinkles was 'messed up' by an old-time 'trainer' at the zoo. She was yelled at and struck with the ankus (bull hook) even when she was obeying him. So, by the time I was assigned to work with her, a simple request to lie down for brushing was enough to send her into a spinning, squealing, terrified panic.
Now, keep in mind none of us were trained trainers. We shadowed another keeper for a couple weeks so we could at least go in and feed and water and move them in and out of the yard without getting killed, then were turned loose on our own.
It's a testament to her intrinsic sweet nature that I was never trampled, slapped by her trunk (which would have been enough force to break my back) or head butted. She could have easily turned on me. But, I persisted with the requests until she'd lie down, at which point I would gently let cool water pour from the hose, over her hot, dry skin, and roll whole apples into her mouth, and caress her face, trying to make our association one of partnership.
But the damage to her psyche was deep enough that there was little change over the years.
Although many zoos began keeping herds rather than lonely, individual animals, and more developed safer facilities in which to also manage bulls (which become quite dangerous when in a cycle called musth), stable, natural social groups of cow elephants are still, sadly, not the norm.
So, no matter how you look at it, the lives of both Twinkles and her crotchety, sly yard mate Cocoa (who was never permitted to be in physical contact with Twinkles) were not just sad, unnatural and heart-wrenchingly lonely; they were genetic dead-ends for their species, as well.
We knew Asian elephants were at risk back then, but never could have dreamed of the sudden, relentless and purposeful slaughter taking place today by hunters, poachers and dealers of exotic and endangered species parts.. Elephants, both Asian and African, and the enchanting pygmy forest elephants as well, could become extinct within my lifetime.
Then there were the charming, beloved black rhinos I worked with there. As far as I know, Sam and Rosie never successfully bred.. Their genetics are lost forever.
We knew the species was in real trouble. But the shock of the actual extinctions of two rhino subspecies in our own lifetimes, despite armed guards and International interventions, seemed to be such a horrific idea that most of us assumed it wouldn't actually, really happen. It couldn't. No one would let such charismatic, fascinating and highly visible icons be hunted to oblivion.
Readers will remember that I wept when the Western black rhino was officially declared extinct in 2011, and then the Vietnamese Javan rhino right on its heels.
Elephants, rhinos, tigers, lions, bears, bison, giraffe - Our former zoo director referred to giant, well-loved animals like these as 'charismatic mega fauna', and we assumed they, at least, would most likely be spared extinction by virtue of their celebrity and visibility.
It was the 'little uglies', like Haitian hutias, that were most at risk, we rationalized, because they are small, little known and not as appealing to the general public.
But we were wrong. Extinction is an equal-opportunity species extractor, and the imminent loss of our biggest, most impressive and most iconic wildlife should send a wake-up shock to the world.
The war on wildlife and their natural environments is escalating at a nauseating, dizzying pace. It's as if humans have suffered some spiritual disaster and have taken to the wilds to loot and steal whatever their frenzied hoarding instincts can stockpile.
I can cite scientific and biological reasons to be concerned about this sudden loss of biodiversity, all day long. And there is merit in all that, of course. It will, in the end, unravel our world.
But where this really gets to me (and all those like me) is in the heart. It hurts.
It's a real, tangible loss. It tears at the truly awake and perceptive among us. The world has been damaged, and will never, ever be right again.
It's not merely the ruthless trade in endangered species and their body parts, as catastrophic as that is, that hurts. Increasing habitat loss and fragmentation, callous removal by special interests (how dare a species get in the way of mining, drilling or corporate profits), and anthropogenic habitat changes like increasing global desertification and deforestation, are not just costly to biodiversity, they are, soberingly, all avoidable.
That is, they could be avoidable if only humans had the collective will to make some changes in our mindset and reduce our demands on our embattled planet.
The calamity is that humans don't have to cause extinctions. We don't have to degrade habitats, pollute air or water, create mutant crops and livestock or trade in the savagely harvested body parts of the last of a dwindling species.
But the selfishness and greed of a few are compromising the integrity, and habitability, of the entire planet for the rest of us.
We are losing all the rhinos, all the elephants, lions, tigers, polar bears, African hunting dogs, giraffes, whales, wolves, sharks, dolphins, important fisheries of tuna and other ocean dwellers, cranes, eagles and many, many more.
All those glorious species we marveled at on Marlin Perkins Wild Kingdom and Jacques Cousteau when we were growing up, creatures that seemed so plentiful and wondrous. They're not just losing habitat; trophy hunters want to get them while there are still some left, before they are all gone (what sense does that make?) Whales, dolphins, sharks are victims of over-harvesting and human greed. Whooping cranes, condors, bald and golden eagles have become 'inconvenient' to profitable industries and are losing protections so corporate giants can kill them without penalty, all in the 'course of doing business.'
Nothing's sacred any more.
I am so grateful to have been privileged to work directly with black rhinos, Rothschild's giraffes, Asian elephants, aardvarks, gharials, white handed gibbons, golden and bald eagles, to name just a few, and indirectly with myriad other species, from polar bears and sea lions to cheetahs and Bengal tigers, which were in sections of the zoo under the care of other keepers. Each species was beautiful, precious and fascinating, and now, in retrospect, I wish I had taken more pictures of them, spent even more time just hanging out with them and reveling in their very presence.
Because now no one will ever have that chance again.
When our charismatic mega-fauna vanishes, the Earth becomes impoverished and damaged in ways we can't predict.
People growing up now don't have the breadth of experience and memory of what's already been lost, what's truly at stake, that we baby boomers do, and we didn't see the rich and unspoiled vistas and wildlife our forefathers knew. The upcoming generation doesn't know what we've lost, so they don't care - At least not as much as those of us who knew and loved a fuller, more diverse, healthier and more vibrant world.. Many have lost their connection to the life force and the rhythms of the planet. Most people now can't be expected to fight to get back what they never grew up knowing in the first place. They don't have the perspective to grasp the enormity of the current crisis.
That's one of the dangerous things about being able to adapt. We get used to things.
So do amputees. But that doesn't mean it's a desirable alternative to having all one's limbs.
So, as a race, our world view shrinks and gets dimmer, duller, and people grow farther away from our connection with the life force, and our true selves, too.
But there may be an answer, and in an unexpected form.
I'm going to explore some possibly paradigm-shifting ideas next time, gleaned from a ground-breaking 2001 book I recently began reading called The Tao of Equus, by Linda Kohanov.
Nothing else seems to be working. Maybe, by employing the ideas in this thought-provoking book, we can change things from the inside out, rather than by trying to force changes from the outside, in.