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Friday, March 16, 2007

A new home for the elephants

By Dick Hirsch
I was still riding around in a stroller when I paid my first visit to the Elephant House at the Buffalo Zoo. In good weather, my mother would take me for walks, and since we lived in the neighborhood, the zoo was a regular destination.
I know my parents thought I was a smart kid, but, to be perfectly honest, I was not too articulate at that point. I couldn’t yet speak English or any other language. But my senses were working just fine, and when we went passed the polar bears and entered the home of the elephants, I distinctly remember asking my mother the following question:
“Wadsvbn eotain shrudlu ghkcus clasdesm?”
Now I knew what I was trying to say, but most people wouldn’t have been able to understand. Mothers are in a different category. Since she had been spending a lot of time with me, she figured out what I was asking.
“Those are elephants, Richard.”
So that’s an elephant. Gosh, they’re big and funny looking, I thought, all gray and wrinkled.
Then I asked another question. I should mention that even at that early age, I was curious. I always had another question. As it turned out, I’ve been asking questions ever since, and I’m much better at asking questions than answering them. My second question was:
“Veshti nulpri chingrala susti nostrila?”
“What do you mean?” mother replied. She must not have heard me because the place was crowded with parents and children, and I spoke in a teeny voice in those days. So I repeated myself, talking more distinctly this time:
“Veshti nulpri chingrala susti nostrila?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, “it does smell bad in here but that’s not because the elephants need a bath or because the house is dirty. It’s because it is crowded and the elephants don’t have a lot of room to move around. When they’re outside they don’t smell badly at all.”
I found that explanation satisfactory, but I didn’t like the smell that permeated the place. I pointed toward the exit.
“Gah oouden gaschmick alors” I said, a clear directive to vacate the elephant house and reach fresh air. She understood. She turned the stroller toward the door and out we went to a setting where a man, or a boy, could take a deep breath and revel in the experience.
That was my first memory of the Elephant House, and I don’t mind admitting it was daunting. Phew. But although the atmospheric conditions shocked me at the time, the elephants intrigued me, so uniquely large and seemingly docile, but very agile for such big animals. I quickly was able to disregard the aromatic hazards involved in a visit and placed the elephants near the top of my list of favorite places at the zoo or elsewhere.
Soon I outgrew the stroller and found other modes of transportation around the grounds of the zoo, first on a tricycle, later on a bicycle, and still later on a series of cars. I always visited the elephants and was always captivated by them, and I still am.
The big news on Parkside Avenue is that a fundraising campaign is starting to raise $1 million to bring the Elephant House, which opened mn 1912, up to standards acceptable to the National Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Three Asian elephants are now in residence, and it is overcrowded.
In the days of my childhood, there were two elephants and the big one was Jumbo. Or was it Dumbo or Gumbo? I can’t be sure, but he was clearly one of the stars of the ongoing drama at the zoo. There was a big cult of personality at the time.
The big celebrity was Eddie, the chimpanzee, who lived at the zoo for many years, and generated a scrapbook full of clippings. He was a character who delighted at least two generations with his antics. Then, as he entered the golden years, his personality changed. He became cranky, demonstrating a lack of respect for those who would stand at his cage urging him to perform. He was aggressive and would throw things at his audience, a no-no in zoo etiquette.
The elephants, however, have always seemed mild-mannered and gracious. The new design will create opportunities for visitors to be close to the elephants when trainers are on duty. I stopped in recently and heard a spectator in a stroller observe:
“Likrat chabat lchu vneilcha.” I didn’t understand what she was saying, but she seemed to be enjoying himself.



At 7:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the story and the elephants. But your spelling is slipping ;;;"passed the elephants" Need a proof-reader?


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