Elephant Girl is a graphic novel based on the life of Calle the elephant, who was euthanized by the San Francisco Zoo in 2004. Intertwined with her story is that of a young girl who lives a parallel life. Both kidnapped in India as children, smuggled to the United States, they find themselves prey of an unimaginably foreign world. The tale rises upon the girl’s determination to break both their chains and return to India.
Coco has agreed to release sections from the Afterword in Elephant Girl to The Eyes of Thailand blog. Part 1 appears below.
Elephant Girl AFTERWORD
By Coco Hall
Kala’s life in Elephant Girl is based on the true story of Calle the Asian elephant. Seized from her native India in infancy in 1968, she was brought to the United States and sold. A series of entertainment companies shuffled her from venue to venue: circuses, parking lots (giving rides to children), and even a Las Vegas show. By 1993 Calle’s life was despoiled with injuries and tuberculosis. She was traded for a younger elephant to the Los Angeles Zoo where she injured her keeper three years later. Elephant advocates petitioned for Calle’s release to an elephant sanctuary but the Los Angeles Zoo moved her to the San Francisco Zoo instead. After decades of standing on wet concrete she was suffering from osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone marrow and adjacent bone caused by chronic foot infections. The San Francisco Zoo euthanized Calle at the age of 37, half of what her life span in the wild could have been. Hers is the story of countless captive elephants in North America.
During a visit to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s (PAWS) sanctuary in Galt, California, I spoke to another visitor, one of Calle’s former keepers. Calle, she said, was calm and easy to be around, though mischievous. She squeaked a lot. Her favorite foods were corn, melons, anything sweet. In fact, she was a chowhound and carrot junkie, ravaging whole oranges and pumpkins. Her keeper laughed recalling Calle’s cute and playful antics, admitting she was not always the brightest star. Sometimes they lovingly called her the blond elephant.
Calle and the elephant Tinkerbelle (who plays herself in this story) immediately became friends at the San Francisco Zoo. However, their bond could not transcend the cramped zoo conditions. Calle’s health was rapidly deteriorating. The inadequate environment at the zoo advanced her chronic foot problems and improperly healed leg injury. Regularly administered painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs did little to no good, merely masking the pain. By the time of her death, zoo veterinarians had cut away so much of Calle’s infected feet that she was virtually toeless.
Shortly after her death, another of the zoo’s elephants died of unknown causes. Finally, through the vigilant work of animal rights groups and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the zoo’s elephant exhibit was forced to close. However, the transfer of Tinkerbelle to PAWS was delayed for so long, she died after only a few months of freedom. The sole surviving elephant from the San Francisco Zoo, an African named Lulu, is still thriving at PAWS.
Those with any knowledge of elephants can see clearly the cruelty of captivity. Elephants are highly intelligent animals with a complex social culture, known for their close relationships and lifelong friendships. Most mammals are born with 90% adult brain mass. Human babies have 26% and elephants have 35%, resulting in the amazing human-like learning ability of baby elephants. In this matriarchal clan society, a herd consists of mother, dependent offspring, and grown daughters with their offspring. Herds of 9 to 11 are bonded with similar herds forming kinship groups. Females stay with their mothers for life while males leave the mother herd around age 14 to live alone or in bachelor herds. Together they bathe daily, submerging themselves if they can. Cooling mud and dust is sprayed over their bodies with the trunk. Mothers gently spray water over their calves and scrub them. Elephants use their astonishingly versatile trunk to pull up grass, pick up the tiniest morsel, or tear off tree limbs. It is an organ for exploration as well as scent. It takes babies years to learn to control its 150,000 muscle units. Joyce Poole recounts in Coming of Age with Elephants, “Elephants have picked up objects in their environments and thrown them directly at me, undertrunk, with surprising, sometimes painful accuracy”…
Please stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 in the coming weeks.
To purchase Elephant Girl visit Amazon.com
About the Author: Coco Hall has been an animal activist since 1991 when she spent six weeks on the Sea Shepard crew. She has been focused on elephants for seven years, working to release the seven elephants at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, supporting elephant sanctuaries such as PAWS in San Andreas CA, and as a Board Member of Joyce Poole’s ElephantVoices. She has been a political artist for twenty years, covering environmental and animal rights themes with her multi-media sculptures. She coauthored and drew her first graphic novel, Ignoring Binky, published in 2001 by Checkmate Press under the nome de plume Beverly Red.