Mary: An Elephant Story – Part 2

Part Two • Roadmap to Freedom

Mary’s Story • The Elephant We’ll Never Forget

By Iris Hunt

The story so far: Don and Iris Hunt, on Safari together will Bill Holden, rescue a tiny Elephant whose mother has fallen victim to poachers’ bullets in the remote Samburu area of Northern Kenya. Iris takes the infant Elephant home to the Orphanage and makes a vow to return her to the wild one day – if she survives.

“Mary,” as they call her, does recover and becomes a much loved member of the family and a long-stay resident in the ever-changing menagerie of the Orphanage. She grows into a healthy teenager…

Click here for Part 1 of this story

Every Day as I made my rounds to check on the animals at the Orphanage, Mary accompanied me.

It is, of course, impossible to guess what might have gone through her mind when we brought in the baby rhino or yet another little monkey or some other hapless critter. But instinctively she knew she should be gentle so as not to frighten the new arrivals and would try to help “comfort” whichever creature I was holding by gently stroking it with her trunk.

By then, Mary had grown into a not-so-slender juvenile jumbo weighing above 1,000 pounds.

3 elephants walking

Our son Kevin and his wife Lydia came from the States to help us on the Ranch and they soon fell victim to Mary’s charms. Lydia became a special favorite and after a while we had a sneaking suspicion as to why that might be. Lydia is a fabulous gourmet cook, spoiling us all with her exquisite French cuisine, and may have had something to do with a heavy penchant Mary acquired for gateau au chocolat.

Just a whiff of chocolate would turn my well-behaved, even-tempered, normally gentle little giant into an unstoppable monster. I was convinced she would kill for chocolate cake. And that was not a comfortable feeling, especially with regard to large numbers of schoolchildren who continued to visit the Orphanage for wildlife education classes.

The thought occurred more often of the promise Don and I had made to each other some 12 years earlier. It was about time to make arrangements for Mary to start on her journey back to her natural environment and her own kind.

Again we sought the advice of our friend, Bill Woodley, Senior Warden of Kenya’s Mountain National Parks, who would know best where we should take her. He recommended the vast Tsavo East National Park in the south-east of the country, and initially at the Park headquarters there, at Voi. Bill had in mind that Mary might benefit from the presence there of the Elephant matriarch “Eleanor,” whom his wife, Ruth, had raised as an infant before assigning her to the care of the former Warden, David Sheldrick, and his wife, Daphne.

The Sheldricks were no longer at Voi, but Eleanor still rarely left the headquarters’ area and Bill felt we should introduce her to Mary as soon as possible in the hope that the older, wiser Elephant, still between two worlds herself, would guide the ingénue’s first steps towards her rehabilitation in the wild.

Don and Iris Hunt with Elephants

The arrangement was duly made with the new Park authorities and we set about preparing Mary for the relocation. Don built a heavy traveling crate, which was left for a couple of months in the Orphanage so she could use it as a “Wendy House” and thus get well-accustomed to it.

I also asked Lydia to stop by with her horse so Mary could meet someone non-human that was even bigger than her. She was terrified – trembled like I had never seen her do before – and refused to go anywhere near the fearsomely big equine. Shades of things to come, I mused? How would she feel about confronting a full-grown Elephant, never having seen one since she was a tiny baby. Would she remember?

We left Mary to play with her “Wendy House” and flew down to Tsavo to do a recce at Park Headquarters. The Game Scouts introduced us to Eleanor, then fully grown, whom they took on daily walks for miles around the dry bush-land so she could satisfy her needs for natural, wild food. But she always returned with the Scouts in the evening to spend the night at base near the stockades that David had initially built to protect her.

The Scouts reported that they often encountered wild herds on their daily wanderings, but that Eleanor would get jittery, panic even, whenever any of them came what she considered to be too dangerously close in investigating a curiously lone member of their species in the company of “predatory humans.”

Not a good omen for our purpose, we thought, wondering if maybe we had kept Mary “human-habituated” for too long and spoilt her chances of total detachment and freedom.

For the headquarters’ staff, however, Eleanor’s nightly return to the stockades was actually seen as a good sign. She seemed clearly content to preserve her ties with the past and stay close to her long-term friends. But I had different plans for Mary. And to succeed, I knew that, when she was ready, the apron strings had to be resolutely cut.

With the aid of a hand-drawn map Bill Woodley had given us, we found the spot on the Voi River he’d recommended for a camp site. It was perfect. We brought in a lorry loaded with everything we would need for what we then understood was likely to be a prolonged stay in the bush. We’d realized that helping Mary on her way to rehabilitation could occupy us for several months.

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch, she had happily “habituated” herself with the crate and we were able to take her out in it for a test run, loaded on the back of a lorry that would ultimately transport her down to Tsavo. She was fine so long as someone she knew was near – very near.

Dr. Claude Walters, the Orphanage vet who had spent a great deal of time with her, volunteered to travel with Mary on the back of the lorry and his offer was gladly accepted. She would be comfortable with him and, should there be an unforeseen incident, it would obviously be good to have a vet at hand.

Christmas had come round again and a final date was set for Mary’s farewell to the Orphanage. She would journey down to Voi overnight and arrive at her new home, symbolically of course, at the dawn of the New Year.

Mary Elephant with students

Don and I went ahead to spend Christmas at the campsite in Tsavo, the festive mood somewhat subdued this year with the thought of Mary’s imminent withdrawal from our lives 12 years on. We had made all the necessary arrangements before leaving the Ranch, including having a chocolate cake baked and kept in a cool box. It would act faster than a tranquilizer, just in case. Claude, Mary’s friend and vet was left behind to supervise the loading and safe transport generally.

Down at the riverside camp, we were joined by a bunch of friends. Stefanie Powers, the movie actress who had been our late partner Bill Holden’s special friend and her mother Julie were eager to be there for Mary’s debut in Tsavo. A long-time mutual friend then arrived, the Hollywood screen-writer Tom Mankiewicz, a natural-born comedian who did much to keep spirits up throughout the festive interlude. Our Daughter Kim joined us with her Infant son Ryan. Numerous other friends stopped by.

Our always enterprising camp cook Sammy had managed to make some giant quiches on the campfire, which we took for a Champagne breakfast on Christmas morning to a picturesque spot called Lugard Falls. At one point, “Mank,” as we called him – glass in hand and effervescent himself – ran over to greet a tour bus that stopped nearby to expel a party of curious travelers. What on earth, they wanted to know, were we all doing in the middle of a semi-desert, sitting on hot rocks, swilling chilled Champagne?

Mank told them, archly, that breakfast with bubbly was on the daily menu of an up-market Safari we’d booked in Los Angeles. He quizzed them on why they had opted for a safari “package” that didn’t include such little luxuries – necessities, actually (i.e. civilized psychological counter-balances in the raw African bush.) Next time, he advised, they should book with the eminently bush-wise “Mary’s Safaris” at their branch office in L.A.

While we were all straining to keep a straight face, Mank proceeded to spell out the name of the person to contact: Ms. Mimi Nataka, and if she wasn’t available, they should ask for Maji Moto. The grateful tourists wrote all this down and departed with the firm intention to complain to their touring firm about the unfortunate oversight. (‘Mimi Nataka’ and ‘Maji moto’ were, incidentally, the only Kiswahili words we had been able to teach the intractable Mank. They mean, respectively, “I want” and “hot water.”)

Don and I then took time out to fly back to the Ranch for a final check on Mary. But we were back at Tsavo on New Year’s Day, anxiously waiting with the others at the turn-off to the Park Headquarters on the main Mombasa Road, for the arrival of the truck carrying Mary along with the escorting vet and African crew.

As we waited who should turn up, but the self same tour group of friendly folks that Mank had joshed at the Christmas breakfast. Now they wanted to know what on earth we were doing lined up by the side of a bleak and dusty road. None of us could think of an instant, half-way credible explanation – except Mank, of course.

Claude with Mary Elephant

He told them we were waiting for the arrival of the customary “Safari Elephant” that followed us around on the tour on which we could take restful rides in turn. Hadn’t they got one, he asked horrified? No champagne? No Elephant? Really they just had to complain!

Some stared in disbelief, but before Mank was forced to elaborate his wild story, Mary’s convoy drew up and we all rushed off to greet her. Our “Safari Elephant” had duly arrived to the further wide-eyed confusion of the doubters in the tour party.

In order to be close at hand and, if necessary, calm Mary during the trip, Dr. Walters had borrowed one of our upholstered wing-back chairs, which he’d secured on top of the lorry in front of the crate. He had gamely sat in it for all the 16 hours of travel, so that whenever she felt worried, Mary was able to extend her trunk through the slats to “caress” her friend.

That had clearly been a frequent occurrence, judging by the reddish-raw appearance of his face. Mary had delighted in the touchy-feely-caressing game, unaware of how the rough hairs on her trunk would irritate delicate human facial skin.

At Park Headquarters, she was finally offloaded and disembarked from her crate into the protection of the stockades. She was tired but clearly happy to be re-united with the people she had known as “family” all her life.

Mary Elephant Mary Elephant Mary Elephant Mary Elephant

There were only a few hours of rest for her before Eleanor, unaware of what exactly awaited her, arrived back from her daily walk in the park. This was the crucial moment that we had anticipated and wondered about for so long.

Eleanor had sensed or scented a new Elephant at her home base from some way off. She had run the last mile or so, leaving her Scouts behind. A loud trumpeting announced her arrival and then suddenly she appeared, sweating and urinating with excitement.

After a few moments, she collected herself and went over to greet the stranger by rubbing her trunk on her head. Much to our surprise, Mary did not flee to the far corner of her pen.

She trembled and also broke out in sweat, but something made her stay and tolerate the ordeal of her first encounter with a full-grown Elephant. We watched silently, hoping for the best.

Baby Elephant Mary meets an adult Elephant

After completing her initial inspection, Eleanor went off to have a sand bath, rubbing herself on the mound of earth we had dug up for the lorry to back into for the unloading. Then, as abruptly as she’d appeared, she was gone. Mary finally could get some rest.

I stayed with her that night, as I’d done on that first night in the Orphanage. As for Eleanor she spent the night away from the stockades, something she had never done before.

Elephant in Mud Elephant in Mud Bath

At dawn I was woken up by the sounds of Elephant. I saw Eleanor approaching calmly and Mary moving towards her – if tentatively, looking back at me for reassurance. Then suddenly she froze, startled. I glanced up in the direction of her stare and saw a big elephant rushing towards us, trumpeting and waving his head about madly, flapping his ears.

It was an impressive display, but not altogether unfriendly, as I knew from experience. All the same, I was thankful for the strength and security of the stockade that kept this unfamiliar, apparently wholly wild Elephant at a safe distance.

Eleanor remained calm; Mary retreated into the far corner of the pen. I pondered over the strange, mock aggression of the alien Elephant, not knowing quite what to make of it. It’s was Eleanor’s secret, obviously, since the intruder was evidently well-known to her.

The Game Scouts, alerted by the commotion, appeared to be somewhat wary of the still gesticulating tusker. They told us it was “Raru,” an Elephant that had spent time in the stockades as a youngster. He had been found abandoned, too old to be easily taken in and cared for, but too young to make it without his herd in the wild.

Elephant Eleanor in camp

In fact, he had been kept at the stockades for a time, until, in his early teens, he had become a destructive nuisance. He had taken to digging up water pipes and wrecking whatever else he could get his trunk round and finally had to be forcefully “seen off.” It took a few impressive thunder-flashes, but finally Raru had gotten the message that he was no longer welcome at Park Headquarters.

He had not been around for several years and no one knew where he’d gone, or so the Scouts reported. But obviously Eleanor had “kept track” of her old companion. She must have spent the night ‘getting in touch’ with him for the purpose of bringing him back to see the new arrival.

Stefanie Powers with Mary Elephant

Raru was clearly still excited by the prospect. He rushed to and fro, tossing sticks and stones into the air and chasing any of the Scouts who ventured out to shoo him away. After an hour or so of this hyper-active behavior, they concluded that the rogue Raru planned to stay around for the fun of impressing his macho superiority over the young Mary, who was already well impressed – or actually terrified. It was not until towards the end of the day that he could be “persuaded” to depart the scene – again with the aid of a couple of thunder-flashes that finally sent him fleeing into the vast interior of the Park.

We all breathed a sigh of relief and resumed the business of caring for Mary with Eleanor in close attendance, extending a friendly trunk whenever she could touch our little Elephant. After a while, Mary seemed to enjoy the attention and Eleanor, if human feelings can be attributed to Elephants, looked almost “touched” by the younger animal’s increasingly affectionate response.

Tom Mankiewicz, Don Hunt, Mary elephant

That night I felt safe to leave Mary alone in the stockade as I returned to the comfort of my own bed in our camp by the river. Eleanor had once again left sometime in the early morning, only to return later with another, bigger bull elephant in tow. Obviously another of her wild friends summoned for the occasion of Mary’s arrival, but this time our fears in this regard were allayed. The big male was altogether calm and orderly, identified by the Scouts as “Bukanezi,” another Elephant that had spent some of his younger years in the stockades before finally wandering off on his own.

He was impressively large and apparently well-behaved, but Bukanezi, was not as altogether approachable as Eleanor. We all kept a respectful distance and learned not to invade his space.

All the friends who had joined us in camp to welcome Mary to Tsavo had returned to their various parts of the world, but our eldest son, Donnie, then arrived to help with her introduction into the real world outside the stockades. By then, we had started to take her out on short walks, always faithfully followed by Eleanor with Bukanezi also tagging along for a while. He lost interest eventually, disengaging from the party without a gesture of farewell and lumbering off into the bush.

Eleanor Elephant walking with Hunts

Eleanor, however, never took off again and became Mary’s devoted chaperone. She seemed to well understand the bond Mary had with Don and I, but clearly didn’t see Donnie as part of the family. This became painfully obvious on one occasion when she playfully gave him “the shove” and Donnie responded by scolding her.

Eleanor, however, did not consider the response appropriate, rushed up to Donnie and somewhat roughly separated him from the young elephant. Eleanor was clearly getting possessive, seeing herself “in charge” after Don and I, and Donnie conceded. From then on he kept a little space between them and there were no further problems.

Mary elephant feet

Every day we took the Elephants out on ever-longer “safaris” around the Park. This was necessary, we believed, to accustom Mary’s feet to the harsh, stony terrain and slowly build up her leg muscles to prepare her for the time she would be wandering out there on her own.

There were other ambient considerations, including possible danger to her from predators. There would be a chance, for instance, that a lion would sense the vulnerability of a young Elephant out on her own and launch an attack. But so long as Eleanor was around, there would then be little or no chance of her coming to harm in this way.

Mary was becoming increasingly curious about her surroundings and started to wander off the beaten paths to explore. Somewhat disconcertingly, however, her erstwhile guardian, Eleanor, was often side-tracked by the arrival of a tour bus. Her placid interaction with humans had been encouraged to the extent that her interest would divert, for instance, from a nearby herd of wild elephants, which she would ignore in favor of meeting new people.

Elephants in Kenya

Not so Mary. From the start she showed positive interest in her own kind whenever she scented or heard them. We encouraged this, conversely discouraging her to follow Eleanor’s lead in being over-familiar with people. We hoped this would eventually help her to make a lasting contact with a wild Elephant group. When she was ready for it, that is – not before she had learned the rules of the bush.

In this regard, we let her approach a pride of lions we encountered one day, deliberately allowing her to court danger so she might learn wary respect for the one predator, apart from Man, that could kill or seriously injure her. The object lesson was duly learned in a hurry when one of the lionesses rushed at her in a mock charge. Mary got the message loud and clear.

She never again approached lions that we ever saw, keeping well clear of them whenever she sensed their presence. In this way, and many others, both Mary and Eleanor showed a natural intelligence that amazed us all, not least in their response to common experiences. We learned something from them, as well as about them and the behavioral traits of their species in general.

Some time later Don and I returned to the Game Ranch for a while, leaving Donnie in charge of the camp. I’d been informed that a very young chimpanzee had been brought into the Orphanage and needed my attention.

Iris, airplane, elephants

After that, since radio and other means of communication with Tsavo were poor at the time – not at all as sophisticated as they are now – keeping up to date with Mary’s progress meant frequent flying visits. Max the Chimp was for the time being dependent on me as his surrogate mother and I had no option but to take him with us on the flights.

Mary already knew the plane from her years up at the Ranch and invariably turned out to meet us at the Park airstrip, although prudently keeping well clear of the landing and taxi areas. She’d apparently remember her old, well drilled-in lesson on the matter. As for Max, she merely accepted him in a friendly way as just another of the umpteen orphans she’d seen divert my otherwise constant attendance on her.

Iris with Max and Mary

Over the next few months Mary did very well, continuing to enjoy her long daily walks with Eleanor and her human minders – the Scouts and ourselves. She had learned from Eleanor to browse in the bush and go to water wherever they found it, if possible taking a bath and sporting herself in the mud which she particularly enjoyed.

For her own protection, over the following year or so, she would routinely spend the nights inside the stockades. We wanted to be sure that she had grown enough in size, maturity and experience to make it out there in the wild on her own. It became increasingly clear that Mary would face the final step by herself – without Eleanor. She had the necessary curiosity and instinct and showed enough courage for the challenge that would lead to her final freedom.

Part of the preparatory process was that we should gradually withdraw from her ourselves. After a while we took down the camp and cut-back on the frequency of our flying visits to the Park Headquarters. Mary still greeted our arrival with excitement, but the Scouts reported that she was spending more and more time away from base.

Eleanor, on the other hand, continued to show no interest in moving out into the wild and joining up with her own kind. She had been restrained from this at an earlier age for her own protection and the cautious stand-off persisted. Neither she nor any wild Elephants she encountered showed any inclination to strike up an acquaintance. One researcher observing Elephants in the Park said it was as though Eleanor approached contact with the wild groups “in the wrong manner.”

With Mary, however, both the manner and the time were obviously right. When she made a cautious move towards a wild herd, they would also come towards her in a welcoming way.

Eventually the crucial contact was made, as we learned one day in a radio call from Park Headquarters. Mary had spent her first night away from Eleanor, out of the stockades and in the company of a group of free-roaming Elephants. Everyone was greatly relieved when she reappeared in the morning clearly none the worse for her experience.

That was the news we had been waiting for. Don and I – and the Chimp, now much bigger – then flew to Tsavo one last time to bid our final farewells to Mary. Final because I believed that an ultimate complete severing of ties was essential if she was to settle permanently into the life her instincts had led her.

Iris Hunt with Mary and Eleanor

Iris Hunt with Mary and Eleanor

I might have hung on, of course, maintained at least occasional contact. But that lingering reminder of her early years would have left her torn between two lives and two worlds.

Instead, I stuck to the vow I made the day we took responsibility for the orphaned, perilous weak baby Elephant in Samburu – the pledge that, if she survived, she would one day return to the natural world where she belonged In the intervening years, Mary had given us so much joy that to give her final freedom, with no strings attached, was the least we could do in return.

Postscripts:

Mary remained with the wild herd that initially welcomed her. Don and I made a point of staying away, but kept in touch with the Scouts, who watched over her from a distance. She eventually produced a baby of her own, a little bull calf they named – what else but “Don”!

Mary Elephant with Baby Don

Eleanor, we were told, showed a curiously envious interest in Mary’s new life. On being introduced to the infant, she immediately “took charge” and, according to the Scouts, actually tried to kidnap the calf. Mary’s herd then moved in to chase her away.

She did eventually wander away from base and join up with a group of dowager cow Elephants, but so far as we’re aware, Mary never went near her again. The last report we’ve had of our former ward is that she had given birth to a second calf and was clearly thriving – literally “in her element.”

It is, therefore, an altogether salutary end to “Mary’s Story,” which I hold myself to be the (previously) unwritten roadmap to freedom for future orphaned Elephants.

Footnote:

To date, 2012, Mary the Elephant was recently sighted with two of her wild bred offspring. She was the first Elephant ever to have been successfully released and re-adapted to a life in the wilderness.

Not so long ago another Elephant called Mary was not so lucky. I recently came across this grisly story:

Drew Nelles recounts the history of animals being tried in criminal courts. Of note is the amazing story of “Murderous Mary” the circus elephant, who killed an inexperienced trainer in a gruesome manner before bystanders in 1916. The Tennessee townspeople demanded revenge:

A cable and chain, dangling from a 100-ton Clinchfield Railyard crane boom, was slipped over Mary’s neck. The operator threw the motor into motion, and the derrick reeled in the chain, squeezing the elephant’s throat and lifting her from the ground. Mary twisted in agony; there was a sudden snap, and she crashed back to the earth, all 10,000 pounds of her, sitting there stunned and reeling with a broken hip. Some of the crowd scattered. But the job had to be finished. Mary’s executioners attached a heavier chain and tried again. This time it worked, and Mary finally died like the captive she was, with metal around her neck and a crowd looking on in awe and horror.

Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy