Happy The Elephant
written by: Bob Laurie
The elephant herd south of the Congo basin was being threatened by an abundance of poachers. Families of African Forest Elephants would sometimes separate themselves from the herd under attack. Their chances of survival were better when isolated in the jungle where they could hide. The poachers usually went after herds, where their bounty was plentiful.
Happy the elephant, as he was later named, was just over a year old when his Mom and dad took him to the river. Happy enjoyed these playful times with his parents. However, with poachers’ threat, their trips to the river were less frequent and usually only happened on sweltering days or at dawn. These were times they usually felt safe.
It was easy to let their guard down during the playful exuberance, and it only took one time to realize they made an error in judgment. A shot rang out, and Happy’s Dad let out a yell that Happy would never forget. His dad fell in the water, and a group of men with rifles were heading toward them. His Mom didn’t hesitate to push Happy across the river to take refuge in the bush, but after a while, she stopped moving and fell unconscious on the river edge. Happy nudged her, but there was no response.
Happy tried to run, but the men were soon upon him, putting a rope around his neck and tethering him to a tree. He watched as they put straps around his mother and loaded her onto a truck. Happy didn’t think his Mom was dead because she moved. He couldn’t see his dad, who was on the other side of the river, but he feared the worst after hearing the scream.
Happy never really seen people up close before, but he watched them and memorized everything about them. Their clothes, faces, hair, beards, shoes, skin color, everything about them, especially the one with the blue cap and red shirt, who gave the orders. Happy resisted as they tried to get him in a cage, but they took a stick to his legs and yanked on his ears until he complied. The truck with his Mom was first to start back across the river, and his vehicle followed. When they passed the place where his dad fell, there were men all over him. He couldn’t see what they were doing, but he suddenly felt a heaviness in his chest when he realized his dad was dead.
It was August of 1975 when Happy was transported to the Bronx Zoo in New York from Africa’s wildlife rehabilitation agency. Happy refused to comply with any people. Since his first encounter with humans, he’s resisted their chains, ropes, and cages. Although the people treated him better after the poachers, they still made him comply through injections that made him feel far away. When Happy arrived at the zoo, the drug they had given him wore off. As soon as they released the chains, he charged one of the men and slap the other in the face with his trunk. One of the men yelled, “What’s the matter you’re not happy here?” That’s when he got the name Happy, derived from sarcasm.
The Bronx Zoo had three adult elephants before Happy’s arrival. One African and two Asian, each of which welcomed him into their habitat. Happy never socialized with other elephants because he was separated from the herd at an early age. He didn’t understand why these adult elephants were content to be in a place he hated.
On the first day, Happy witnessed hundreds of people standing around watching him. He knew he would never accept this life and never forgave those that took away the life he had. The others weren’t going to help him, but it didn’t matter; he was getting out because anything was better than the place called the zoo.
Happy spent his first weeks in his new home, causing havoc, kicking over buckets of food, stomping on the keeper’s tools, and ignoring the other elephants. They soon learned that keeping him drugged all the time didn’t work because the moment it wore off, he did as much damage as he could. With the zookeepers unable to control Happy, they decided to leave him alone until they could find a natural habitat.
It was a dog day in late summer; Happy was outside hiding best he could from the crowd of people who, for some reason, like to shout at him. The extreme heat reminded Happy of that awful day months ago. There was nothing he wanted more than to go inside and sleep, but they wouldn’t let him. Happy wanted to stay away from the others enjoying the water pond and fountain, but the heat was unbearable. He decided to join them and headed around the enclosure where a gate with more people yelling startled him. That’s when he saw the man with a blue cap and a redshirt. That’s him, the man that destroyed my family. He was almost sure of it.
Happy wanted to charge him, but the gate stood between him and the monster. He wasn’t going to let him get away. He wanted revenge any way he could get it. The stone at his feet was just the right size, heavy enough to deliver a debilitating blow and small enough to throw over the fence at the blue cap with force. He gripped the stone tightly in his trunk and raised it above his head. The people became silent and wide-eyed as if they knew his intention. Happy released the rock and watched it sail across the top of the gate toward his target. The man ducked before the stone hit him, which made Happy extremely angry. He charged toward the gate and stopped just short of hitting it. The crowd scrambled and backed away. The man with the blue cap scooped up his young child and yelled to Happy, “Are you trying to kill me?”
Happy dropped his head and backed away. It wasn’t the same man, just someone that looked like him.
Word of Happy’s aggressive behavior circulated the zoo, and crowds began taunting him for a reaction. People were cruel, even tossing things at him in hopes that he would throw them back. Happy obliged them a few times but not for the same reason he wanted to hurt that man with the blue cap and redshirt. He wanted to be left alone, and if throwing stones at them took him out of the habitat and into his cage, that’s what he wanted.
Happy didn’t see much of the habitat anymore during the zoo’s visiting hours, and there was much discussion in his cage among keepers and doctors that Happy didn’t understand, but he knew they were talking about him.
It was a chilly morning in October when the keepers entered his cage with chains and syringe. He knew they were going to be taking him away and didn’t fight them. Anything was better than the zoo.
Happy didn’t know how long he was in the truck, but the sun was just starting to go down when it came to a stop. The woman that led him down the ramp stopped and looked Happy in the eye. “You’re going to like it here, Happy; I’ve heard that regardless of your name, you are not a happy elephant. There are others just like you here. This is a sanctuary and safe place for elephants that have a hard time adapting to the establishment and people that want to control you. Here you’re free to do what you want, Happy, and the only person you will see is me. So, let’s be friends, okay? My name is Tara.”
Happy didn’t understand everything she said, but he liked her. She wasn’t like the keepers; she was different, and he felt safe with her. He took his trunk and wrapped it around her arm to acknowledge their friendship.
Tara walked Happy to a large building, “We have to do an examination first, Happy; I promise to be as quick and painless as possible, then I’ll take you to your new home.”
For the first time since Happy was taken into captivity, he was cooperative. Tara was gentle and kind in a way Happy never experienced before except from his parents. And for the first time in his life, he had a friend. Someone that he wanted to be around.
Tara finished her examination and opened a bag of peanuts. She sat in a chair next to him and shared. “You know, Happy, you remind me of another elephant that came here not long ago. She was overly aggressive and would not adapt to circus life. Her name is Uma. She has a sweet side just like you. Maybe you two will join the herd. She hasn’t yet, but talk to her Happy, I think she’ll like you. It’ll be getting dark soon; let’s get you inside the sanctuary to meet the others”.
The large timber doors opened to a place that reminded Happy of his childhood. There weren’t any other elephants he could see, but when Tara blew a whistle, he heard the others respond with a strong trumpet sound. He could feel the ground shake beneath him as the herd advanced in their direction. When they arrived, they encircled Tara, and she acknowledged each of them before introducing them to Happy. There were fifteen elephants in all, but Uma wasn’t among them.
Tara used the binoculars hanging around her neck to find her. She was never with the herd but also never far away. Tara located her a hundred yards away in a clearing. “Come on, Happy, you need to meet everyone, and Uma is the one I told you about.”
Happy and the herd followed Tara to the clearing where Uma grazed on a bush. “Uma, someone I want you to meet,” Tara yelled.
Uma had her back to them and hesitated before turning around, but when she did, her body shook with delight. Her son was alive. Is it true, is it him, she sauntered toward him? Happy raced toward her with his tail whirling around like a helicopter. They intertwined their trunks making crying sounds followed by loud trumpet sounds.
Tara knew they were family torn apart by poachers, and to see them reunite was something special. It wasn’t long before Happy and Uma join the herd, and not long after that, Happy became a dad.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Elephants are some of the smartest animals on the planet. They have been slaughtered for money by poachers and captured for our entertainment. Keeping them in captivity is wrong, and as intelligent, compassionate people, we should realize this and stop. Please support Elephant sanctuaries like the one in Hohenwald, Tennessee, to end elephants’ capture and slaughter.
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