“It’s an elephant orphanage!” Andy was giddy with excitement. “Will we get to pet them?” She was bouncing in her seat.
“Yes, yes, why not?” our friend Jaliya assured us.
We were on our way to Pinnawala, a definite checkmark on the unofficial Tour de Sri Lanka, and like Andy’s already told you, an orphanage for elephants—even baby elephants.
“An orphanage?” I was a bit skeptical. “What happened to all the parents?”
She didn’t hear me; she already had the window down and was hanging her head out, watching for signs of the imminent pachyderms.
“The civil war took them,” Jaliya told us from the driver seat—land mines, mortars, stuff like that. Lots of elephants stepped on land mines.”
Oh. That was a sobering thought.
So here’s how that story runs: one day one particularly entrepreneurial animal activist found one solution: found a sanctuary and an orphanage for elephants left in the wild without parental support, and then charge a fee for anyone who wants to come and see—and pet and feed—what was going on. It’s worked well enough so far—like I said, it’s a privatized conservation effort and apparently a must-see on the established tourist route through the island.
I could have guessed that last bit from the road leaning up to the park—honking cars crowding the narrow street, each shoving a bumper toward any square foot of parking available, a dozen men clapping and waving and shouting toward other spots, hoping for a handout for their services. The quarter-mile strings of not-quite-boutique souvenir shacks added their own flare to the atmosphere.
“This had all the harbingers of a tourist trap,” I muttered.
“It has all the harbingers of elephants,” said our friend, swerving around a massive pile of elephant, uh, harbinger, in the middle of the road.
I don’t know if Andy heard a word of it; she was about to leap headlong into traffic and gallop off to the baby elephants.
She’d been waiting for this one—for years our Sri Lanka friends had been bringing us pictures and magnets, mugs and T-shirts from Pinnawala. “It’s an orphanage,” they’d tell us—an orphanage for elephants.” At this point Andy would get kitty-cat-eyed. “And you can even sponsor one!”
Andy’s eyes would always unfocus, would detach themselves from reality and drift hazily to the uncertain future, to dreamy times skipping gleefully through Ceylon lilly-fields surrounded by the finest, stoutest, cutest baby elephants, each waiting to be fawned over and petted and cherished—
“We’re coming,” she told them. “We don’t know when, but we’ll be there.”
It was decided. We were going.
Our car parked in the cloud of red dust. We were there.
The white sun blistered down and dust puffs hovered taller than ankles. Ticket booths swarmed with denizens of two dozen lands and fistfuls of rupees changing hands. For a couple bucks, you can purchase with your ticket a chance to bottle-feed a baby elephant. We smiled at each other. “We’ll take two, please.”
Inside the park, brimming with nerves and too much tea, our first stop was a restroom. Second stop—feeding fruit to a mama elephant.
I know, I know. It’s an orphanage, you’ll say. What’s this talk of mama elephants? What kind of shenanigans are these?
To which I’ll respond by pointing you straight to Wikipedia, where you can see for yourself the civil war here lasted some three decades. Baby elephants grow up in three decades, you know. Some stay at the orphanage. They have babies. The elephant orphanage now has orphans having babies. They have mama elephants who like to be fed vast quantities of fruit—for as many minutes as tourists are willing to offer it to their curling trunks, they’ll snatch and munch on every fruit, and even grind its rinds it their few giant teeth.
And now you may decide to ask me why these grown elephants aren’t returned to the wild. To which I’ll reply that they are in the wild. Well, sort of. They’re in the sort-of wild.
Their leathered feet tread without chains, and they tread wherever they please—as long as where they please is inside the park. These orphans don’t do tricks or balance gray hides on circus balls for your measly applause, and they sure ain’t carrying any loads for tea for any colonist. No, these babies is free.
At least I think they’re free.
They graze their fill in wild fields, and every day the faithful mahouts open a gate and let the earth-rumbling herd mosey down the road—yes, the road (remember the markings?)—to a cool, clean-flowing watering hole to splash away the afternoon hours under the full sun and full symphony of all the crowds’ gaze and shutters.
They’re kind of wild already, you see—they graze in the fields, but they happen to have carefully arranged photo areas while they do. They go to the watering hole on their own—but only because the rangers open the gates at certain hours to keep the traffic on the nearby road flowing.
But on the other hand, you can’t exactly walk up to an elephant in the wild, the real wild, and hand it a chunk of watermelon. Even the sweetest slice of pineapple, for a Savannah-fed beast, would be a foolhardy undertaking. But not at Pinnawala. Here, for a couple bucks’ fee, you can take your tiny hand—suddenly much tinier than you remembered it—and place the bananas and melon, the citrus and sweets, all in the trunk of towering beast.
Or, if you’re Andy, right into its flopping jaws.
That was a sight—she trying to smile and still spoon feed an animal that weighs more than a few Navy ships, trying not to look nervous about it, trying not to betray her fear that this mama elephant would accidently chew a little on her hand along with the melon rinds. She jumped away a time or two. She yelped once. But in the end, she managed to pull off the coveted photo shoot, pet the anaconda trunk, and scamper away, no trace of fear in the photo.
“Perfect,” I said, glancing at the camera display, “how was it?”
“Slimy. Now where’s the baby elephants?” And she was already off to track them down. “And a wet wipe?” she called behind her.
Elephant slobber, after all, is a lot of slobber.
But the question of how wild these guys really are kept after me. Later that afternoon, we took our spots along the souvenir-lined streets that the elephants parade down twice daily to the watering hole. Mahouts and rangers walk alongside them, carrying some bamboo sticks for guidance of the troubled, but for the most part, the animals leave the shops and cafes intact as the lumber by in the swirl of dust and sun and animal sweat. They get escorted down to the gentle rocks of the river, and we camera hounds stay behind a polite little chain to memorialize them in the slow-motion frolicking and splashing.
But—and there’s always a but—you could get closer for an extra fee. The Mahouts had a favorite, with a chain on her leg, that they used for the photos. Whoever wanted to pet one, to get a close-up pic, to touch the living gnarls of the trunk strong enough to uproot trees and smash in car windshields and pluck you up by the ankle and swing you round like a cotton candy baby mobile, just had to say the word and hand over the rupees.
Just say it, man, and get your cash and camera ready. You can pet the (sort-of) wild beasts.
The same goes for a close-up shot of the water-splashing scene—get past the safety chain with a small wad of bills. Get those Nat Geo close-ups of the leathered rings around the solemn eyes, the dust floating indolently by. The dark-gray stains of water tanning the light-gray hide dark. It just takes a few bills to get into the river’s edge, to bypass the safety and approach the demi-wild giants, to step into the world of gray monsters.
We did, but our photos ain’t exactly Nat Geo caliber.
We did enter that arena. Long trunks slithered over hot rocks, and ears huge as beach umbrellas fanned themselves in the sun. Thick trunks of legs and stumps of feet dragged and splashed in the cooling water, and the children of the beasts snuggled the sides of their muddy mothers, or playfully tousled each other about the rocks. We stood in the center and spun around a moment in their slow-motion world. We saw the string of paparazzi cameras from the elephants’ side.
It was fun.
The mahouts themselves are a funny lot—half rangers and half entrepreneurs and half elephant whisperers. One stood at the corner of the crowds, constantly calling a calm female up to the people, taking a handout of folded cash, and welcoming the tourists for a photo with his favorite elephant. Then she’d lumber back to the river, and he’d bargain with another bystander, then he’d call her right back up to for another 2-minute photo shoot. Then they’d start all over. His pockets swelled with rupees. He must’ve had a kid to put through college or something.
Another mahout sat out in the river, lonesome on a rock, his only companion a loyal pachyderm who shuffled about him in the water, then would come near for caresses and petting, then step back into deeper ranges. And again and again it went on like this—the mahout sat and pondered who knows what, his buddy, his friend, his pet never walking far away. He must’ve had a broken heart. His elephant must’ve known it.
Scenes like these made me wonder how wild the elephants really are.
They say that dogs and horses are the only animals mankind has ever truly won over to his side, has ever really gone past the point of domestication and into that of family and affection and identity—I mean, that the animal feels those things, not just us. But from what I’ve seen at Pinnawala, elephants may also be capable of bridging that cozy little cross-species divide. They’re just a lot harder to feed and clean up after.
But the stars of the river were definitely the baby elephants—something about their clumsy gait and their spunky trunk-waving makes them seem tiny and pocket-able, makes you forget that they already surpass a buffalo’s girth. Something makes you want to hug and pet them, though not many of us would be up for caressing a cow or snuggling a moose. Something about a baby elephant’s bristly hair and clunky trot and toddler play and fog-horn bellow it seem smiling and nice and worth fighting over.
And yes, people do fight over baby elephants.
Let me tell you about that one.
It all started when we stood in line for those tickets—everyone was already glaring at each other, sizing up the competition. I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to see there’s only so many animals, only so many bottles. We all saw it: There just wouldn’t be baby-elephant for everyone. And in case you haven’t fed baby elephants in Sri Lanka before, here’s something to keep in mind: the fans are rabid.
So we elbowed and jostled for that extra baby-feeding ticket. And when we completed that purchase, we guarded that ticket like gold.
I can’t remember the last time I saw Andy so desperate to shove strangers down stairs or into a ring full of wild animals—she caromed through the mosh-pit crowd, frantic for a spot in the feeding ring. “Where are they? Where’s the line? We have tickets! We already paid for tickets! We—“ Bam! Another wimp bit the dust as Andy sprinted on. I stomped on the poor guy’s gut in my hurry to keep up with her, and I clocked another with my tripod as I spun to apologize, but I couldn’t stay and make any amends because Andy was already across the shaded pavilion and shaking the security guard by the collar and staring daggers at me for not keeping up.
And she was the calm one in the crowd.
Ah, the baby elephants—those adorable little guys will steal your heart: how they bellow incessantly for their food, how they tug at their chains and stretch their python trunks for the next bottle, how their sparse hairs stand foot high and bristle as irregularly as a crocodile’s toothbrush, how they somehow capture those ridiculous proportions in a size only slightly lower than your shoulder, only somewhat lighter than a pickup load of plywood. Those little guys are adorable, alright, and everyone knows it.
That’s why we sent five people packing for the ICU on our mad dash to get the little guys a bottle from our own hands.
When we finally crippled enough fellow tourists to gain a spot with the star of the orphanage, I readied the Canon, and she readied her most picturesque smile, I beeped the lens into perfect focus and—Bam! The baby was already bellowing for more and the mahout was already shoving Andy away and trying to pry the already-empty bottle from her death grip.
“Did you get the picture!” she was screaming this, and somehow in the same moment, “Wait! Wait! I have another ticket!” and somehow still in the instant, “Now! Take the picture now!” and I found myself snapping the shutter as fast as the processor could handle. Three or four frames is all it takes—that gluttonous little guy downed the next bottle faster than a freshman frat boy at a graduation shin-dig.
Andy and I stared at that little porker in disbelief. Two bottles in ten seconds. Seriously.
Nothing left—we shrugged, we sighed, we shuffled through the frothing mob, and another tourist took our place with yet another milk bottle filled and readied. Once clear of the baby elephant blast radius, we glanced through the snapshots—none could be seen without the intruding tentacles of the barmy crowd snaking into the frame.
I didn’t even get the baby elephant’s name.
It’d take awhile to recover from that set-back. But here’s a few alternate attractions to take you mind off the madness of the baby elephant crowds—the gift shop (yawn), the half-dozen elephant-dung-paper outlets on the road to the river (unnecessarily gross. I mean, I’m all for green initiatives, but I’m not for flaunting fecal matter greeting cards either), and the barely-controlled stampede of the beasts through the tourist-shop streets (wow!). For the record, my flip-flopped toes almost got stomped by the leathery log of an elephant’s leg, and I could hardly stop filming the spectacle of that mammal bulldozer shaking free from the leatherworked purse tangled on his ankle.
After we’d witnessed the entire life of an elephant—eat, hang out, then hang out in water—we sauntered back through the dung-peddling streets and arrived at the car that brought us. Pinnawala—baby elephants—portraits with the elephants—orphanage for elephants—all big fat Ceylon check marks on the Sri Lanka trip itinerary.
We were hot, tired, a bit grouchy, and the only thing to cheer us up was frosty tall one—a genuine Sri Lankan king coconut sipped slowly in the shade as the tourist buses revved up and left.
We cracked open roasted peanuts and sipped the sweet juices from the shell, and we chatted over it all: the dust, the fees, the heat, the press of the crowds. We laughed there in that shade, and marveled at how spiky a baby elephant can be and how we never knew it. A man came by shoveling up chunks of dung the size of cantaloupes to boil down and mash and make paper and cardstock. Shrug it off: another handful of peanuts, please, and another sip of the sweetest coconut I’ve ever tasted.