Elephants At Dinner

By David Kessler

Until a few years ago I had met a total of two elephants. Now when I say, "met" I don't mean that I spent five minutes on their backs, guided by someone in an exotic costume and a bad, fake accent. I mean that I saw them enough to learn something that made them individuals in my memory. The particular way one would "sneeze" backstage on a chilly night, or how another would react to me saying "Hello" day after day, as I walked along her staked out territory working my own job. Just two elephants out of all the ones I've seen at shows or in parades. But that number increased one evening, a few years ago, thanks to a backstage pass and a couple of nostalgic circus-folk.

Circus folk remember and keep track of each other after they leave a show - whether for another circus, or for another job completely. When their circus unit comes back through town every year or two, they'll meet and hang out, trading stories and catching up on where-are-they-nows. And so my connection to one veteran of the Ringling Brothers animal crew has gotten me backstage a few times.

One time in particular was thanks to a friend of hers on the elephant crew. He took us around and showed us the layout, and then we relaxed over by his station. Out came the stories: Where past crew members are working now, what happened in this city or that arena... We were standing right in front of the elephants, so while past and present crew caught up on all that news, I leaned against the wall and watched the six adults and two babies who were lined up side by side for dinner, not ten feet in front of me.

There was a long length of chain running along the floor in front of them and another behind. Each elephant was connected to these at the leg by a shorter length of chain long enough to let them move several feet in any direction and easily interact with their neighbors. The 2 babies - both under 3 years old - were next to each other and next to them in the line was the mother of one of them. The floor was coated with sawdust, which they seemed to enjoy scooping up and throwing on their backs. In front of each elephant was dinner. They had at least two kinds of hay (one yellowish - probably straw or timothy grass - and the other greenish), and there were also apples, carrots, and potatoes. This was the dinner scene set out in front of me. As I watched the elephants slowly became individuals.

Some things were the same for them all: They all liked to toss their hay around (particularly the babies, but I imagine that children of all species prefer playing with their food to eating it at that age) and most of them seemed to favor carrots over everything else. But beyond that, they each had different eating habits.

One elephant preferred to eat things two at a time. She would wrap part of her trunk around an apple, leaving the very end of her trunk free to grab a second one. She brought both apples up to her mouth to eat at once. Then she did the same with two carrots, and so on. That seemed to be her way, and she continued eating by twos until there was only hay left.

Another elephant preferred her carrots flattened. She would choose one, move it into position, cover it with her foot, and shift her weight onto it. I had been watching her neighbor until I was distracted by the peculiar crunching sound this made. I don't know if she did this for taste, consistency, or just for the sound, but I can tell you that sound was distinct and that she didn’t eat any un-flattened carrots while I was there.

And then the most remarkable moment of all. One of the elephants had eaten her carrots, apples, and most of her hay faster than the rest. She had one remaining potato, and seemed less than satisfied with it as she swished her trunk through the hay looking for some hidden piece of food beside that one potato. But there wasn’t anything else left. She picked it up in her trunk, shuffled a couple steps to her neighbor, put the potato down in her neighbor’s dinner, picked up one of her neighbor's carrots, and moved back to her own area.

How often can you really know what’s going on in an elephant's brain? In this case it was very clear. Her neighbor was no greater fan of potatoes than she was (if I learned one thing that evening it's that potatoes rank far below apples and carrots in the elephant economy) but taking someone else's dinner without leaving something in return would be wrong. Even this unequal exchange was apparently preferable to outright carrot theft!

If there was any response from the elephant getting the short end of this deal then I didn't have the eyes or the ears to catch it. They both went on with their dinners as if nothing had happened. All was normal, except for the human over there, leaning against the wall and trying hard not to laugh out loud as he watched.

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