As author and journalist Shana Alexander notes at the start of this lively and well-researched tribute, elephants have fascinated mankind for centuries. Writers from Aristotle to Cicero to Chaucer to Donne have stopped to scratch their heads and nibble their quills on the subject of these great beasts. Alexander's own obsession began in the Portland Zoo in the early 1960s. A determined Life reporter, she made four sudden flights from New York to Portland awaiting the arrival of 225-pound Packy, the first elephant born in America since prehistoric times. Playing midwife to an elephant proved fascinating, and she was hooked. Today, Packy is likely the world's largest Asian elephant, and Alexander is a self-described informed amateur, a word rooted in lover. Doubtless she is not alone in her enthusiasm. Sadly, however, human fascination has not always been a good thing for the elephants. For many years, Alexander argues, elephant abuse at the hands of circus masters was commonplace. Most striking is her account of the systematic execution of dozens of male circus elephants, which were shot, poisoned, stabbed, and even hanged between 1880 and 1925. The killings came in response to periodic hormonal changes, which render bulls extremely violent. The females were given male names, and audiences were none the wiser. In recent years, pioneering scientists have turned their attention to better understanding and protecting these unusual creatures. Alexander presents a litany of intriguing elephant facts and figures: These enormous animals (mature African males sometimes weigh more than 15,000 pounds) are highly intelligent, never clumsy, and unique in their gentleness, tenderness, and affection with one another. Today, scientists are turning to artificial insemination to save both the African and Asian species, which have been decimated by ivory poaching and habitat destruction.
Alexander gives readers a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes at the National Zoo in Washington, D.
C., as Shanthi, a 23-year-old Asian elephant, is artificially inseminated. Unique experiences like this one distinguish the book, but it is the fascinating nature of elephants themselves that will keep readers turning the pages.
Beth Duris works for The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia.