Sunday, February 15, 2015

For the Love of Elephants and Loss, Jodi Picoult's book LEAVING TIME Touched My Heart in an Unexpected Way.

I am currently polishing up a manuscript and, when telling a friend about it, she suggested I read the book, Leaving Time.

I did, and I truly enjoyed it. My friend was right. Jody Picoult and I have similar writing styles and messages to convey to our readers.

What she didn’t expect was the pool of tears I cried when the author described a “fictional” character named “Lilly” (confession here…I actually listened to the audiobook while traveling for my “other” job so I don’t know how the name was actually spelled) because I knew of who this character was based. 

I had to call my friend to tell her my story. 

I grew up in West Monroe, LA and The Louisiana Purchase Gardens andZoo was a regular destination for many a field trip and group outing.

My first memory of seeing Shirley (fictionalized as Lilly in the book) was that of any ten or eleven year old girl strolling through the zoo with a group of schoolmates being herded along from enclosure to cage. Of course, we could smell the elephant habitat before we could actually see the elephant, and being situated next to the hippopotamus housing probably didn’t help.

When I rounded the corner to her enclosure, her back was to me, and the first thing I saw was her leg. 

Bear in mind, other than the elephants I saw performing in the Barnum and Bailey Circus, this was the very first elephant I had seen close up.

And it broke my heart.

There was a placard on her enclosure telling of her injury, and I cried to point I was nearly inconsolable.

As the crowd was shepherded around the corner of the enclosure, I was able to get a side view of Shirley. As if the dangle of her crippled leg, her skewed stance, and the wedge of flesh missing from her ear were not disturbing enough, it was her expression that bore into my soul.

In general, animals held in captivity have that “look” of boredom and some of anxiety, but Shirley’s was one of utter despair.

I admit, I am an oversensitive person, and where it probably benefits me as an artist, actress, and writer being able to tap into such deep feelings, in a group of thirty pre-adolescent kids; it just makes you weird.

On subsequent trips to the Zoo, I would feel the anxiety just thinking of her and honestly, my eyes would fill with tears (much as they are doing now) as I watched her standing like a massive boulder except for the occasional swat at a horsefly with her vitiligo marked trunk

Once I was fortunate enough to have arrived at feeding time, but she may as well have been animatronic with the disengaged mechanical way she fed herself.

I moved from West Monroe at the age of fifteen and did not return to the Monroe area or the zoo until I had children of my own. By then, my perception of the park and zoo so prevalent in my childhood as a cheery place where pink flamingoes welcomed you at the gate, was now a dire place with dingy habitats, desperate for funding. 

My children have no recollection of this visit probably because they were either too young, or perhaps too distracted to recall Shirley. But I saw her, and once again, I cried.

I could not help thinking that since last seeing her I had graduated high school, graduated college, married, and had children, not to mention visited numerous zoos with elephants habitats containing multiple elephants. Yet Shirley remained alone and still practically motionless in her small enclosure.

A few years later, I volunteered to go with my youngest son’s class field trip to the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo.  This was when I learned that in 1999, Shirley had been moved to an animal sanctuary. I felt such relief. I could barely finish reading the sign before I lost focus through the film of my tear filled eyes. Later, when I watched the video of her being reunited with old friend, Jenny, and you bet I cried…tears of joy!

Knowing in my heart that Shirley was happy, I went years without thinking of her until I read the book, Leaving Time, which prompted me to visit the website.

This year, for St. Valentine’s Day, in lieu of flowers, chocolate, or dinner out, I asked my husband to please send a donation to the ElephantSanctuary in Tennessee. While on their website, we went on their elecam and would you believe…THERE WAS SHIRLEY! She walked across the pasture, stopped, deposited a bit of dung, and walked out of the camera’s range. I have since checked on the elecam, but have not seen her.  I see her dung, but no Shirley.

Don’t worry, Shirley! I’ll check back often, and when I do see you, I will probably cry.