The Astonishing Elephant

Shana Alexander’s The Astonishing Elephant relates her long interest in the world’s largest land mammals. In the early 1960’s, while working for Life magazine, she covered the prospective birth of an elephant in the Portland, Oregon, zoo, a unique event given the difficulty in mating elephants in captivity. Her assignment ultimately required four trips to Portland before 225 pound “Packy” was born. During those months she learned much about elephants, becoming acquainted with individuals involved in the propagation, though not always successfully, of those giant beasts.

The elephant has fascinated humanity since prehistoric times. Carthage’s Hannibal famously used elephants in the invasion of Italy in the third century BC, and one of the most popular Hindu gods is the elephant-headed Ganesha. Alexander claims that elephants are much like human beings, or perhaps as humans might aspire to be in their nobility, loyalty, playfulness, and gentleness—at least most of the time. But elephants have not always done well by humanity. P. T. Barnum’s Jumbo remains the most famous of all elephants (with the possible exception of Walt Disney’s Dumbo). However, it became standard circus practice to kill all male elephants who were unpredictable during “musth” when their hormone levels rose. Dangerous because of their great size, they were poisoned, hanged, shot, killed with pitchforks, and electrocuted.

Elephants in the wild are threatened with the continuing loss of their habitat, and possibly the only hope for their survival is in zoos and similar institutions. In recent years elephants have been bred successfully in captivity as greater knowledge about their physiology and breeding habits has become available. The Astonishing Elephant is obviously a labor of love, and a thought-provoking book.