The International Writers Magazine: Beasts of Burden
The Importance of Elephant Care
"Easy now, Charity," Sherm Pudakis, one of two full-time elephant keepers at the McLoughlin Park Zoo, said soothingly as he approached the enormous Asian animal. "Take it easy."
Charity ambled toward him, her floppy trunk swinging from side to side, then stopped when he grabbed her lower lip and gently massage it for a couple of minutes. On a cassette player in a corner of the humid elephant barn a Stevie Ray Vaughn album was blaring.
"You ready?' Lee Zumwalt, one of a quartet of assistants at the barn, asked Sherm.
He grinned. "I certainly am, and I hope she is."
Lee handed him a plastic syringe, and Sherm released her lower lip and grabbed her ear and held it out and injected the needle into a large vein. In his other hand he held a glass vial to collect the drops of blood. Every Wednesday morning, just before the gates opened to be public, he drew blood samples from the three Asian cows currently at the zoo in order to monitor their health. As soon as the vial was full, Sherm withdrew the needle and handed it back to his assistant then fetched a bunch of bruised bananas and shoved them into her mouth as a reward for her cooperation.
"You want me to walk her now?" Lee inquired.
"Yeah, you might as well. She seems in pretty good spirits this morning."
"Don't forget to take this," Sherm said and held out an ankus, a hooked implement used to keep elephants in line.
"You think that's necessary? As you said, she's in a pretty good mood today."
"You better, as a precaution. You can never be too careful around here."
"If you insist."
"I do," he said. "You just never know when one of these creatures will turn on you. Even the gentlest ones can suddenly slam their trunks into your chest and pin you against a wall. You have to be on your toes all the time."
Lee, nodding, led Charity out into the main exercise yard, which was partly surrounded by a dry moat, and guided her past the spectators on the other side of the moat. Sherm watched them from the doorway, lighting what remained of his cigar. Slowly, monotonously Charity circled the yard, pausing only a couple of times to dust herself with sand. He was pleased by her steady pace, aware that she was prone to stand still for long stretches of time staring back at the spectators. In the wild elephants walk all the time, up to thirty miles a day, but in captivity they scarcely walk at all. This inactivity often leads to serious foot infections that sometimes can be fatal. So it was very important that Charity and the other elephants in the barn exercise as much as possible. Not only did it reduce the occurrence of lesions and abscesses, but it relieved some of their boredom.
Lee, because of his patience and enthusiasm, was an absolute godsend, Sherm thought, as he continued to watch him guide Charity around the yard. Unlike many of his other assistants he was willing to exercise the elephants whenever he was asked. Often offered to do so without being asked, as he did this morning. To be sure, he had not been working at the barn long enough to become jaded by the experience, only five and a half weeks, but something about his manner persuaded Sherm that he would retain his enthusiasm as long as he was there.
All of a sudden Charity paused and scooped up a pile of excrement with the tip of her trunk and slung it at Lee, striking the left side of his face. The spectators laughed heartily, as did Sherm, while Lee bowed as if it were all staged and wiped himself off with a green bandana.
"Working with elephants can be very dangerous," Sherm reminded Lee as the young man pitched a bale of timothy hay into the stall of the youngest elephant at the zoo. Faith was her name. "Some folks even claim it is the most dangerous way someone can earn a living in the country."
Lee nodded, having heard him make the comment numerous times.
"I don't know about it being the most dangerous," he went on, "but it can definitely clear the cobwebs from your head on occasion. Only last April I was leading Faith around the yard and for some reason or other she tensed up and before I knew it she rammed me into the wall."
"Is that so?" Lee replied, not recalling him mentioning having any trouble with Faith.
"It sure as hell is," he barked. "And then she whipped her fire hose of a trunk across my face and split open my nose and jarred loose a couple of teeth." Immediately he leaned forward and yanked back the left corner of his mouth to reveal one of the crowned molars.
"It's hard to believe," Lee remarked, "because whenever I'm around her she's as gentle as could be."
"So she is most of the time, but as I said you always have to be on your guard when you're dealing with elephants because this disposition can switch in a heartbeat."
Lee smiled, pitching more hay into the empty stall.
"Thank God we don't have any African elephants here because with those tusks of theirs they can do some serious damage when they start to get ornery."
Sherm then launched into an account of a senior keeper in Chicago who received a deep gouge in his chest from a tusk. He discussed the incident in considerable detail, which Lee pretended to listen to though he scarcely comprehended a word that wassaid. Not only had he heard enough anecdotes about the aggressiveness of elephants but he was someone who believed when it was his time to go he would and there was nothing he could do to avoid it. Even so, he did not reveal his disinterest to Sherm, not wanting to get on the wrong side of him. If he had any discernible talent, it was his ability to ingratiate himself with others. It was not because he had anything particularly interesting or clever to say but rather others enjoyed his company because they liked the attention he gave to whatever they were saying. He smiled, he nodded his head, he maintained eye contact, he asked questions, he offered compliments. He made others feel special, not at all ordinary, even though they were usually quite ordinary.
"You seem to be whoever it is in your interest to be," his Aunt Ida observed to him once after she caught him in another lie. "Always trying to become like the people around you." And though her remarks were meant as a criticism he regarded them as a compliment. His adaptability to situations was the key to practically all the success he had achieved in his short, contentious life.
"Don't forget to soak Faith's feet tomorrow morning," Sherm told Lee as he poured him a mug of coffee.
"I won't. But why tell me today if you don't want me to do it until tomorrow?"
"I'll be in Camden then."
"Every other Thursday, remember?"
Lee nodded, surprised he forget even though he had only been working at the elephant barn a few weeks. Sherm was generally gone the entire day, sometimes did not report back to the barn until late the following afternoon. He served as a consultant to the keepers at the Camden Botanical Gardens as well as to some handlers at a com-
mercial enterprise, the Meadow Park Game Preserve, some thirty miles east of Camden.
"I haven't been to Camden since my grandfather took me there when I was seven or eight years old. I can hardly remember it."
"It's a nice place to visit but I'm always busy working when I drive up there so I don't get much of a chance to see it."
"I'd like to go up with you some time if that's possible."
"Sure, I'd like to see it again."
"Well, maybe we can work something out one of these days."
Lee smiled smugly. He wasn't particularly interested in visiting the old harbor town but he wanted to see if Sherm would accede to his request. When the keeper did, he was sure he could get him to do other things he wanted. He had gained his trust, as he was confident he would, and before long he would have him wrapped securely around his little finger.
"You been to Camden much?" Lee asked Rhonda, an attendant at one of the informa-
tion booths he had become acquainted with since he started working at the zoo.
"A few times."
"You like it?"
"I do, but it's so much bigger than here I always feel a little lost whenever I'm there."
"My boss drives up there a couple of times a month to do some consulting work and he said he'd take me along some day. You be interested in joining us?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said, surprised by the invitation.
"We'd go on a Thursday and be back that night or Friday afternoon."
She frowned. "I'm still going to school, you know."
"You can say you're not feeling well. You won't be gone that long."
"I'll have to think about it, Lee."
"You do that but it'll be a lot of fun, you and me in Camden. We can ride on that new monster rollercoaster they have up there."
Her eyelids fluttered in consternation. "I want to go all right but I just don't know how I can get away with it. I'd need some kind of excuse."
"I can write one for you."
"You're not a doctor."
"No, but I might be able to get my hands on some doctor's stationery."
She glared at him. "You think you can be whoever you want to be, but that's not possible. There are boundaries that define who we are, each of us, and once they're located we can't cross them."
"Not for me there aren't."
"If you want to go badly enough, you'll find a way. The hell with any boundaries."
After soaking Faith's front feet in an anteseptic solution for half an hour, Lee dried them off with a beach towel then gave her some carrots. She devoured them immediately, her mammoth gray head gleaming under the overhead lights. Seated on a three-legged stool, he then squirted a worn of analgesic cream across the back of her left front leg, slipped on some gloves, and slowly and firmly rubbed the cream deep into the folds of her creased skin. The scent of the cream filled his nostrils, temporarily overcoming the smell of hay and urine and manure that otherwide dominated the barn. He rubbed with both hands, gradually moving down toward her ankles.
"What're you doing here so early?" Remy Breene, the other keeper, asked when he shuffled into the barn Thursday morning.
"Just rubbing down her leg."
"Sherm tell you to do that?"
"No. I just know that horses are massaged a lot so I thought I'd see how Faith liked it," he explained, continuing to dig his fingers into her hide. "So far no complaints."
"What're you after, Zumwalt?"
"What do you mean?"
"Coming in before you're suppose to, doing things you're not required to do. Why else do this if you're not after something?"
"Honestly, I'm not after anything," he swore. "I just happen to like working here. Is there something so unusual about that?"
Remy, skeptical, tossed another handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth.
"You don't believe me, do you?"
"It doesn't really matter what I believe as long as things work out as you want them to."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Remy."
"Not at all."
"Oh, I think you do."
Sherm agreed to take Lee along with him to Camden the following Thursday, but when he arrived at the parking lot he was surprised to see that his young assistant had an even younger girl with him. Lee introduced Rhonda as a friend who worked in the information booth on the weekend. She barely looked sixteen, Sherm thought, as did many of the girls employed at the zoo.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" he blurted out, startling himself.
Anxiously she glanced at Lee who looked away. "We have the day off so our teachers can attend some workshop downtown."
"Seems like students sure get a lot more days off than they did when I was in high school."
She grinned, adjusting one of the straps of her swollen backpack.
"You don't mind if Rhonda comes along with us, do you?" Lee interjected.
"I suppose not," he said, still surprised that Lee had invited her without asking him first.
Even more surprisingly, Lee and his friend were not interested in visiting the Camden Botanical Gardens but rather asked him to let them off at the Martello Amusement Park on the edge of town. He offered to pick them up later in the afternoon but Lee told him he and Rhonda planned to spend the rest of the week with some friends of her family. Again, he expressed concern about her missing school but Rhonda assured him that she had been given the lessons in her most important classes so she would not fall behind in her studies. It was none of his business, of course, he was not her father, so he let them off as they requested.
Not that evening but the next, while watching television, Sherm saw Rhonda's picture flash on the screen and sat up and discovered that her parents had reported her missing and were afraid she had been abducted. Stunned, he turned up the volume and listened closely as the breathless newsreader reported that the girl's abandoned Nissan was found near a trailhead of the densely wooded park where she had gone the previous evening to walk her chocolate labrador. The dog was locked inside the car, with all the windows rolled up, and scattered on the ground were her keys, a scarf, a water bottle, and a broken charm bracelet. Up to sixty-five volunteer searchers were scouring the immense park, the newsreader said, including two bloodhounds to track the scent of the missing high school student.
Sherm was appalled, absolutely dumbfounded, so angry that he could barely restrain himself from heaving an ashtray at the television screen. He could not believe Lee and his girlfriend had involved him in their apparent prank, having to know the repercussions it was likely to have in a community that only last fall searched long and hard for two boys whose bodies were found buried in another park. He just could not believe it, not someone he had trusted as much as anyone he had worked with in the eight years he had been at the zoo. It made no sense, none whatsoever. All the trust he had invested in the young man obviously was misplaced. The bastard had betrayed him. He was outraged, embarrassed, sure that however much he denied it some would believe that he was an accomplice in the escapade.
After gathering his composure, he found the telephone number of the local precinct station and informed the desk sergeant that he drove Rhonda to Camden, emphasizing that he had no idea she and Lee had staged an abduction. The sergeant asked for his address and said that an officer would be out to speak with him in a matter of minutes. He considered calling her parents but figured any further involvement in the matter was not worth it so he sat back in his easy chair and finished his beer, cursing the day he had become acquainted with Lee Zumwalt.
"Back up, Charity," Sherm commanded the reluctant elephant, lightly swatting her back legs with a feathery push broom. "Back up now."
Slowly, ponderously she complied, edging toward the rear door of the barn.
"A little farther back," he continued. "Just a little farther."
She was within a couple feet of the door when he ordered her to halt. She did and he rewarded her with some carrots. Then he ordered her to raise her left front leg so he could put on a restraining rope. He didn't need the rope but every few days he ran her and the other elephants through a series of commands to relieve the boredom of their confinement as well as to assert control over them.
"You about done?" Remy asked shortly after he entered the barn.
"Just about. Why?"
"No reason. Just asking."
Sherm ordered her to lift her leg again, removed the rope, then gave her some more carrots.
"I heard on the radio the cops are bringing Lee and his girlfriend back from Camden sometime today."
"Yeah, so I understand."
"You figure he'll show his face around here again?"
"He can try but he sure as hell won't find any work here for his sorry self," he declared, stroking the side of Charity's trunk. "Maybe he can find something to do in the Reptile Garden. That's where a snake like him belongs."
"He really fooled you, didn't he, Sherm?"
Sighing, he shrugged his shoulders.
"Personally, I always had a funny feeling when I was around him. As if he weren't telling me everything he knew when I asked him something."
"He was slick all right. I thought I knew him but it turned out all I knew was the person he wanted me to know."
"You're always telling everyone to be careful around elephants because they can turn on you without notice. I guess you didn't figure that advice can apply to people too."
"I guess not," he said as he began to hose down the concrete floor.
© Thomas Healy May 2010
laurel462001 at yahoo.com
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