Learning elephant etiquette the hard way

Published 10:22 am Tuesday, October 25, 2016

It was a typical South Florida afternoon.

The warm breeze from the Atlantic Ocean was playing with the clouds and there I was, minding my bakery/health food store, wishing instead that I was on the beach looking for sea shells.  My husband Gene was busy unpacking a vitamin order when, all of a sudden, one of the zoo keepers on the island (Key Biscayne where we lived and worked), rode up to our front door on his bike and into the store.

He was absolutely so excited as he stumbled over his words to me.

“Jean, you have to come to the zoo now. Elka the elephant delivered her first baby early this morning. You gotta see this little wrinkly baby! Oh, but one thing I gotta tell you,” he continued, “the mama Elka seems quite jealous of all the attention her baby is getting. What you have to do when you come is talk sweetly to the mama. Congratulate her. Tell her how beautiful she looks and thank her for sharing her baby with you!”

Now, to tell you the truth, I was no longer listening to this guy.  Frankly, I knew a whole lot more about animal behavior than he did. I mean, he was just the keeper of this small zoo and the feeder of the animals.

Anyway, I had already announced to Gene that I was leaving for the zoo and was out that door and on my blue bike, heading for my first look at the first elephant birth at our zoo.

I biked on Crandon Boulevard as fast as I could, and soon I stood in front of the cutest, wobbly little light gray baby laying by her mama.

All the instructions allotted me about Elka being jealous and all disappeared as I stood in awe.

Meanwhile, Elka began pacing back and forth in front of her baby. Not only did she pace, she trumpeted. I knew this was telling me, “Pay attention to me, Jean. I am the one that painfully produced this, this thing I made. Look at me, girl!”

Did I listen to Elka or to my book learning? Not one bit!

If you have ever seen a day old elephant, surely you’d understand. The real problem was the mama did not get it and she could not stand it one more minute. I just hope I can take you there as I recall the next few minutes.

Elka suddenly stopped her pacing back and forth, reversed her directions and headed straight for her huge water barrel. It is kept full of water daily. There is just one problem. When elephants drink, as much nasty (and I do mean nasty), smelly water comes out of their trunk and into the barrel as fresh water comes into the trunk and swallowed.

I mean, you can smell an elephant water barrel a mile away.  But still, I paid no attention to the feelings of an ignored mama. She stood in front of the barrel, stuck her long trunk deep into the slimy, gooey water, sucked up as much as possible, walked over to the fence closest to me and with as much power as possible and with a steely eye on me, she exhaled and emptied her trunk on me.

She knew exactly what she was doing and why.

Starting with my hair and covering my body, head to toe, was the raunchiest, slimiest, stinkiest liquid you could ever imagine.

I stood there, dumbfounded and dripping.

Then it hit me.

That zookeeper knew what he was talking about. Elka truly was hurt that her baby was taking center stage and she told me so as emphatically as she knew how.

Her eyes never left mine.

I said to her that I was sorry for my insensitivity, jumped on my bike and rode back to my store, I am sure, leaving a trail of stink trailing behind me.

As I  walked into the store, everyone’s eyes left the merchandise and looked at me.

Gene gently pulled me aside and instructed me to go home, take a shower, shampoo my hair and come back to the store in fresh clothes.

Do you know he did not want to even hear about the baby elephant? In fact, we rarely ever talked about my knowledge about elephants again.

The view from the mountains is wondrous.