Volume XI, Issue 46 ~ November 13-19, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

What’s a Zoo Without Elephants?
It’s a Chesapeake Bay without rockfish.

Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.
– John Cheever (1912–1982): “The Country Husband

Tell you what. Sadly, in Baltimore — so often referred to by its boosters as Charm City — soon there will be no nights, nor days either, when kings ride elephants over the mountains.

First, there aren’t any mountains in B- Town. Second, we’re told there probably won’t be any elephants. Third, seeing that kings can afford golden suits, perhaps they ought to consider picking up the tab for Baltimore Zoo to continue to provide food, housing and care for its pachyderm population of two.

What’s a zoo without elephants? I’ll tell you what it is: It’s a Chesapeake Bay without rockfish, an army without soldiers, a newspaper without words or pictures, a Rolls Royce without cylinders. How can a zoo be a zoo without elephants? No way. Even a one-ring circus has at least one behemoth with a pair of tusks of ivory.

People of all ages enjoy a trip to the zoo, but for kids where else is it possible to see animals, reptiles, birds and so much more of wildlife? What an introduction to the marvels of nature: living creatures of assorted sizes, shapes, unique features and temperaments.

A Wonderful Beast Is the Elephant
Of them all, the fascinating elephant, be it African or Asian, is unquestionably king of the hill, whether in the eyes of a toddler or an old geezer such as this writer. What a being: an animal with the biggest snout of anything now or probably ever on earth, a versatile appendage capable of carting around a mature tree — yet sensitive enough to pluck a peanut from an outstretched hand.

Nothing that walks on land and breathes air today can challenge the elephant in size, weight and peculiarities — nor for the everlasting impression it can make on a youngster. What has bigger ears, and what can be more engaging on a hot day than to witness those ears waved like giant fans to induce loss of body heat or chase away flies?

There is so much more to this creature of lore. The upper incisors known as tusks, whether straight or curved, are something to behold. The biggest known, now in a British museum, weighs 226.5 pounds and stretches 10 feet three inches. And you think you feel pain when a molar has a cavity.

The enormity of the elephant calls for legs nearly the diameter of the maples in my front lawn, for the African variety can pack as much as six tons in a massive frame that can attain a height of 11 feet. The ambling gait is like that of a camel, giraffe, bear or common household cat such as my white longhair 2-E: the right feet and left feet move forward in unison, which is not the way in horses, dogs and most other animals.

Relatively, the only thing small about an elephant other than its brain (and its future in Baltimore) is its tail with the tuft of hair at its tip; otherwise hair grows scantily once these creatures reach adulthood.

Small wonder a trip to a zoo isn’t complete without a visit to the elephant quarters, where in Baltimore the beloved Dolly and Anna are in residence. For the time being.

Speaking of Missed Opportunities
What a shocker when last week, the day after zoo officials talked publicly about the need for curtailments, there came the word that among cutbacks were Dolly and Anna. If they didn’t go, the whole zoo might. These two African-born elephants, both in their late 20s, were raised here and are high-maintenance creatures. It takes more than peanuts to sustain a tusker or two.

We’re told that over several years, the tab could be close to a million bucks. Thus it’s economically feasible (again, we’re told) to send them to another zoo (or two?) where it’s suggested that making baby elephants will be on the agenda. Hey, not only are we going to miss Dolly and Anna, we’re about to miss the excitement of prolonged pregnancies of the zoo’s favorite tenants.

What makings for continuous news coverage to bring to the zoo priceless media attention: The gestation period for elephants is 20 to 22 months before a single calf is born; rarely are there twins. If anticipation of a birth — or, spectacularly, one each for Anna and Dolly — wouldn’t fatten the coffers of the zoo, what would?

Tell you what could: How about the sight of a newborn calf or two, each weighing a couple hundred pinkish pounds, probably three feet in height and capable of walking around after only a few days. The line at the zoo turnstiles would be longer than those picturesque marches of elephants. And the masses wouldn’t be in single file, elephant style.

That’s what we’ll be missing in Baltimore, a city that found the wherewithal in recent years to build one stadium for a football team and another domicile for a baseball team, both at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The profit the Ravens make on selling name rights for the stadium we built for the team would not only support Dolly and Anna for the rest of their lives (and they have perhaps 30 years ahead of them), but also their calves — regardless of how many each might drop in the future.

Too Many Jackasses
Hey, the 128-year-old zoo’s entire budget for 2004 is $12 million for the care of 400 members of the animal kingdom. Regardless of what animal-rights loudmouths might say, zoos go beyond captivity. Much beyond that is the delight in the eyes of youngsters, not to mention their elders.

The enjoyment of visiting and observing wildlife, especially elephants, instills in the young appreciation, quite probably a lifetime appreciation, of anything that lives free in the wild. Where is that opportunity most available? In a zoo, which takes us back to the question, what is a zoo without at least one elephant? Polar bears, giraffes, lions and tigers are sideshows; elephants are the main ring.

Sure, the state’s broke, but that didn’t come about overnight. Anyone who could see an elephant saw it coming over the past five or 10 years. Primarily responsible are a governor and legislators whose mascot is not an elephant, instead a jackass — and already we have too many of them, not all in zoos.

In Life With Picasso (1964), the artist wrote “God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style. He just keeps on trying other things.” Has the time not come when those who run the zoo — our legislators, the governor, the mayor of Baltimore and the zoo administrators — start trying other things, anything, to keep Dolly and Anna in the zoo? Enough said …

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Last updated November 13, 2003 @ 2:28am.