January 18, 2006

Elephants assume the throne

I cut a photo from a recent issue of This Week magazine and hung it on my refrigerator. It’s a picture of a great, gray Asian elephant sitting on a massive concrete toilet, and it bears the caption, “Don’t forget to flush.”

The accompanying story shares the news that “weary trainers”
at a Thai animal preserve have taught seven pachyderms to poop in a giant potty. Whenever bits of their hundred pounds each of daily food start knocking, the elephants plop their rears on the throne, do their business, then use their trunks to pull a cord that flushes what is likely the world’s largest loo.

I’ve seen an elephant sit, and it’s a rare thing to behold, especially from behind. (Sorry. It's hard to resist wordplay when it stares you full in the face.)

I could have, should have, popped off a better shot (photo above) of this African elephant’s rump, but I was momentarily pollaxed by what I was looking at and missed capturing the exact moment when the geometry of his big booty was perfectly square with the stone culvert he was scratching himself on.

We were in Amboseli, on the last of our Kenya game drives, and Herbert, the Star Tours driver who’d shared his land with us over the course of a sublime week, was determined to find final, marvelous things for us to see before we said goodbye. He delivered.

The clouds parted, revealing Kilimanjaro and her vanishing snows. We’d already seen, thanks to Herbert’s knowledge and skill, all of the Big Five, including the elusive leopard, but on this last day, we found our first hippo and studied his bulbous face through Herbert’s binoculars. We watched a herd of giraffe, legs splayed, as they sucked salt from a powdery white lick that ran next to a sparse stand of acacia trees. A lioness, on her back with legs up and white belly exposed to the sky, played with her three babies.

All this was enough, but then came the young sitting bull. He sashayed toward us, gave us an elephant-may-care look, turned, sat down on the concrete, and, with great effort and purpose, scratched away that African day’s bugs, dust and other indignities.

Then, business done, he got up and walked away.