“What Lies in the Elephant’s Eyes”


elephant paint.jpeg
Painting by JoAnna Schindler

Fifteen-thousand pounds press into the rich soil of sub-Saharan Africa. Ears, expansive like the sails of a great ship, flap on either side of wise eyes. Helping hand, curious nose—her trunk extends from her gaze, sloping towards the ground, curving up towards the sky, thirteen feet high. A cobra without the venom. The trunk turns one way, then the other—a periscope on a submarine searching for treasure. Or threats. Her skin corrugates into deep wrinkles, canyons wrapping around her legs, four stocky tree trunks. Brown dusted onto grey canvas. Tusks protrude from her face, guarding her trunk, a reminder to those who cross her, those fooled by her calmness, that she has the tools and the courage to fight. If need be. She does not reduce herself to the savagery of recreational violence.

Wisdom. Royalty. Confidence. Patience. Compassion. Elephants command respect wherever they roam, authorities in the animal kingdom and sacred gods in human history. Other species keep their distance, bow in their presence: an unspoken rule. Exhibiting an undeniable commitment to their families, their communities, elephants speak the language of love and support. They allow themselves to touch and be touched, trunks striving for connection. Trumpets, bellows, rumbles—they express, converse, defying the boundaries of geographical distance with seismic vibrations, infusing the earth’s surface with their thoughts to be felt by their clan. When faced with loss, they grieve; and when faced with mistreatment, they remember.

Ivory trades. Circuses. Labor. Habitat destruction.

Hundreds of thousands have fallen in the name of human greed, each body a commodity. Their tusks, meant for protection, turn against them—an inborn death sentence. Even the most valiant elephant is vulnerable to the savagery of recreational violence. George Orwell once wrote an essay about a man who shoots an elephant: critics have called it symbolic of imperialism. Art has a habit of romanticizing death.

Depression, aggression, PTSD—the captivity of circuses and zoos damages their mental health. But in a human society that treats mental health as fictitious, these elephants and their pain are invisible.    

Some say that dreams of dead elephants suggest the deterioration of memory.

But elephants never forget.

Do not read their gentleness as passivity. Look into the eyes of an elephant who has seen injustice, and you will see fire.


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