Elephants are charming, loyal, intuitive, and have a sense of humor. They are the best mothers, aunties and friends to each other. Two of my favorite books about elephants are memoirs written by people who have probably spent more time with elephants and understand them better than anyone else in the world- Daphne Sheldrick and Iain Douglas-Hamilton.
The Original Elephant Whisperer
Now I’m adding a third book to that list. Set in the1920’s, the current New York Times Bestseller, Elephant Company
by Vicki Constantine Croke is about a man named James Howard Williams who justifiably earns the nickname “Elephant Bill.” He is the original Elephant Whisperer, long before that idiom was assigned to Lawrence Anthony. Like my other two favorite books on elephants this one is a non-fiction love story between humans and the world’s largest living land mammals.
“Elephant Bill” starts his career as a forest naturalist for a teak timber company in Burma while in his early twenties. For almost thirty years he is responsible for the health and well being of his elephant employees who push the massive logs, build bridges, and carry heavy loads.
Elephants as Teachers
As William’s understanding of the elephants in his care develops he realizes, “they were conducting an emotional master class, educating him about love, courage and trust. Trust had to be earned and was granted only to those who could be relied on, “ writes Croke. Billy credits the social lives of the elephants for teaching him how to negotiate the world of adults, and two pairs of elephants in particular for helping him form his “own personal standard of courage”.
Croke’s clear beautiful prose takes the reader into the life of Bandoola, the mightiest of all the elephants ‘Billy’ has ever known; toiling alongside the herds in Burma’s humid, leech infested teak forest; and bathing with them as they screech with joy while being scrubbed during their end of work day bath. We also follow along with one young elephant who leads his blind dependent mother everywhere.
In a similar manner to Daphne Sheldrick’s humble start caring for orphaned baby African elephants, Billy discovers by trial and error all sorts of remedies to care for ‘his’ Asian elephants– wounds inflicted from tigers are packed with sugar, abcesses are bled out, and for a severe case of indigestion Billy uses his hand as the main instrument to get the digestion flowing again.
Like Sheldrick, Billy takes in injured wild creatures as pets until they invariably chose to return to the wild. He and Sheldrick share the belief that the wildness of an animal, even when domesticated, remains an intergral part of who they are and must be validated, supported and encouraged.
Sheldrick revolutionized the standard of care for orphaned ellies, successfully returning them to the wild, while Billy replaces the brutal breaking of wild caught elephants spirits that was the logging industry standard at the time, with a gentle reward-based approach on babies born to elephant mothers already working for the industry.
A Model for human/animal relationships
Billy, with no formal scientific background and without conducting research on the elephants, forms an uncommon understanding of these incredible beings. The only characteristic Billy brings to his work is a love for all animals and an openness to learn from them. A simple, humble model for all aspects of human’s relationships with animals.
Similar to Sue Gruen’s feelings, mentioned in her review of Elephant Company, my love for elephants, and my adamant opposition to how these highly sensitive, emotional and intelligent beings are treated when enlisted for human’s desires and needs made me apprehensive about reading this book. Although logging work is tough, and I feel sorry for these elephants at times throughout the story, Billy is the best thing that ever happened to the thousand or so elephants under his charge, treating them with the respect and love for which any animal in servitude to humans deserves.
At the climax of the story (I won’t give it away) Billy says everything he has learned from elephants and about elephants is put to use in one stroke. Again I’m reminded about elephant’s loyalty, courage, and strength -emotionally, physically and mentally.
I can’t recommend Elephant Company enough and have added it to my Book Shelf of favorites.
The Easiest Way to Help Elephants
If you buy Elephant Company, please do so through this link:
A portion of your purchase (at no extra cost to you) will go to Daphne Sheldrick’s organization to save and return orphaned baby elephants to the wild.
Use this link anytime you shop on Amazon and a percent of your purchase (it varies by product) will go to the best organizations saving wildlife.