Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives - By Thomas French

Chapter 1

The New World

Eleven elephants. One plane. Hurtling together across the sky.

The scene sounds like a dream conjured by Dalí. And yet there it was, playing out high above the Atlantic. Inside the belly of a Boeing 747, eleven young elephants were several hours into a marathon flight from South Africa to the United States. Nothing could have prepared them for what they were experiencing. These were not circus animals, accustomed to captivity. All of these elephants were wild, extracted at great expense and through staggering logistics from their herds inside game reserves in Swaziland. All were headed for zoos in San Diego and Tampa.

The date was August 21, 2003, a Thursday morning that stretched on and on. The elephants were confined in eleven metal crates inside the semidarkness of the freighter jet’s cavernous hold. Before they were loaded into the plane, they had been sedated. Now they were woozy and not particularly hungry. Some lay on their sides, slumbering. A few stood and snaked their trunks toward a human who moved up and down the line of crates, replenishing their water, murmuring reassurance.

“Calm down,” Mick Reilly told them. “It’s not so bad.”

Mick was thirty-two, with light brown hair and the permanent tan of someone who has grown up in the African bush. As usual, he was clad in his safari khakis and an air of quiet self-assurance. His arms and legs bore the faint scratches of acacia thorns. His weathered boots were powdered with the red dust of the veldt. Everything about him testified to a lifetime of wading through waist-high turpentine grass and thickets of aloe and leadwood trees, of tracking lions and buffalos and rhinos and carefully counting their young, of hunting poachers armed with AK-47s.

Mick and his father ran the two game reserves where the elephants had lived in Swaziland, a small landlocked kingdom nestled in the southern tip of Africa. Mick and these eleven elephants had come of age together in the parks. They recognized his scent and voice, the rhythms of his speech. He knew their names and histories and temperaments—which of them was excitable and which more serene, where each of them ranked in the hierarchies of their herds. Watching them in their crates, he could not help but wonder what they were thinking. Surely they could hear the thrum of the jet engines and feel the changes in altitude and air pressure. Through the pads of their feet, equipped with nerve endings highly attuned to seismic information, they would have had no trouble detecting the vibrations from the fuselage. But what could they decipher from this multitude of sensations? Did they have any notion that they were flying?

“It’s OK,” Mick told them. “You’ll be fine.”

Not everyone, he realized, agreed with his assessment. He was tired of the long and bitter debate that had raged on both sides of the Atlantic in the months before this flight. Tired of the petitions and the lawsuits and the denunciations from people who had never set foot in Swaziland, never seen for themselves what was happening inside the game reserves. There simply was not enough room for all of the elephants anymore, not without having the trees destroyed, the parks devastated, and other species threatened. Either some of the elephants had to be killed, or they could be sent to new homes in these two zoos. Mick saw no other way to save them. He had heard the protests from the animal-rights groups, insisting that for the elephants any fate would be preferable to a zoo, that it would be better for them to die free than live as captives.

Such logic made him shake his head. The righteous declarations. All this talk of freedom as if it were some pure and limitless river flowing through the wild, providing for every creature and allowing them all to live in harmony. On an overcrowded planet, where open land is disappearing and more species slip toward extinction every day, freedom is not so easily defined. Should one species—any species—have the right to multiply and consume at will, even as it nudges others toward oblivion?

As far as Mick could tell, nature cared about survival, not ideology. And on this plane, the elephants had been given a chance. Before his family had agreed to send them to the two zoos, he had visited the facilities where they would be housed and had talked with the keepers who would care for them. He was confident the elephants would be treated humanely and be