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Zoo story: The New World

Love. Sex. Power. Escape. Mistaken identity. Obsession. Seduction. Exile. Grief and loss. A king challenged. A queen unleashed. It's all happening at the zoo.

By Thomas French, Times Staff Writer
Published December 2, 2007


CHAPTER 1 

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

The scene sounds like a dream conjured by Dali. And yet here it is, playing out high above the Atlantic.

Inside the belly of a 747, 11 elephants are deep into a flight from South Africa to Florida. These are not circus elephants, accustomed to captivity. All are wild, plucked from game reserves in Swaziland. All are headed for zoos in San Diego and Tampa.

The date is Aug. 21, 2003 - a Thursday morning that stretches on and on. The elephants are confined in 11 metal crates inside the 747's cavernous hold. They have been sedated. They are woozy and not particularly hungry. A few snake their trunks toward a man who moves up and down the line, replenishing their water.

"Calm down," says Mick Reilly, 32. "It's not so bad."

Mick and his family run the game reserves in Swaziland, a small kingdom in the southern tip of Africa. Mick knows the elephants' names and personalities; they recognize his scent and his voice. Watching them now, he wonders what they are thinking. Surely they can hear the thrum of the jet engines, feel the vibrations under their feet. But what can they make of all this?

"You'll be fine," he tells them. "There's lots of food where you're going."

He is tired of the long and bitter debate over this flight - the petitions and the lawsuits and denunciations from people who have 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. The only options left were to move some elephants out of the parks or kill them.

He has heard the protests 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 in captivity.

Such logic makes Mick shake his head. 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 are slipping toward extinction every day, freedom is not so easily defined.

As far as Mick can tell, nature cares about survival, not ideology. And on this plane, the elephants have been given a chance.

He has visited the zoos where they are headed. He is confident they will be treated well. But there is no telling how they will adjust to being taken from everything they know. Wild elephants are used to roaming the bush for miles a day. They are intelligent, self-aware, emotional animals. They bond. They rage and grieve. They remember.

What will they do when they realize their days and nights are encircled as never before? When they understand, as much as they can, that they will not see Africa again?

Either they have been rescued. Or enslaved. Or both.

The 747 races westward, carrying its living cargo toward the new world.

- - - 

The highway, overrun at dawn. A chorus of muttered curses rises from the great steel and chrome herd now jammed, bumper to bumper, in the middle of another morning's migration along Interstate 275 toward downtown Tampa.

Trapped inside the climate-controlled interiors of their cars, alone with their cell phones and their iPods and their satellite mapping systems, the drivers long to swerve onto the shoulder and break free. Instead they inch forward, thumping fists on steering wheels, snarling at other cars, allowing themselves a few bursts of aggression even as they stay in line.

Just off the Sligh Avenue exit, another chorus is rising. The drivers can't hear it. But it's there.

At Lowry Park Zoo, the beasts are waking.

The Malayan tapirs are whistling, calling to one another in the early morning light. The orangutans lounge in the rope netting of their exhibit, sighing their philosophical sighs. The hammerkops are cackling, and the New Guinea singing dogs are barking, and the sloth bears are snuffling and sniffing, their long, curved claws clicking as they pad out into the sunlight.

High above them all, Cyrus and Nadir serenade each other with another duet. The male and female siamangs - Asian gibbons, with long arms and thick black fur and big bulging throat sacs - swing from poles 30 feet above the ground as they trade the same sequence of hoots and wails that they perform every day. Mated for life, the siamangs sing to seal their bond. Their duets carry to every corner of the zoo, cutting through the recorded jungle drums beating incessantly from the PA system.

Other songs join the soundtrack. Cries of desire and hunger, protest and exultation. A multiplicity of voices from nearly every continent, at nearly every frequency, of almost infinite variation. Hearing them all together, on a bright clear morning, is to contemplate the audacity of creation.

In the herps department - the part of the zoo reserved for snakes and turtles and other cold-blooded creatures- the blue poison dart frogs are peeping, very softly, inside a small warm room clouded with man-made mist. The room is designed to replicate, as much as possible, the atmosphere of a rainforest.

The males plant their legs on the rocks beneath them, the heart-shaped pads at the ends of their toes gripping like tiny suction cups. Their bodies are so bright blue, they seem to glow. Their calls to the females are so quiet, they are almost drowned out by the hum of the ventilation system.

These blue poison dart frogs, like many other amphibian species, are vanishing from the wild. All over the globe - from the forests of Panama to the spray zones of waterfalls in Tanzania - frogs and toads are dying. Some of these species will simply disappear. Others will live out the rest of their time on Earth in aquariums and zoos, in small rooms like this one at Lowry Park.

At the zoo, every day is another lesson in what it means to live in a world where there are no more pure choices.

- - - 

By now, cars and minivans are pulling into the parking lot. Mothers and fathers unload strollers and diaper bags stuffed with juice packets and sanitized wipes. In their car seats, their toddlers whine and kick their legs like small despots impatient for their retinue to convey them forward.

If the families are listening, they can make out the roar of Eric, a young male Sumatran tiger. Possibly he is restless. Definitely he is sexually frustrated, since his attempts to court Enshalla, the zoo's female Sumatran, have so far met with rejection.

Eric is only 4 years old and sexually naive. Enshalla, almost 12, is more experienced and confident. Born at Lowry Park, Enshalla views the tiger exhibit as her territory and rules it with the titanic force of her personality. She is haughty, independent, hostile to the expectations of not just her keepers but of other tigers.

"The queen of the zoo," one of her keepers calls her.

Over the years, she has dominated the males paired with her, even though they have been close to twice her size and weight and could easily kill her, if they weren't so intimidated. By tiger standards, Eric is relaxed and easygoing. Enshalla bristles with a ferocity he can barely muster. Against her cunning and experience, the young virgin hardly stands a chance.

The zoo remains hopeful that Eric will assert himself and that Enshalla will submit. Like many other animals at the zoo, Sumatran tigers are endangered. If their species is to continue, they must reproduce. Besides, tiger cubs are likely to draw more visitors.

No one at Lowry Park Zoo says this out loud. No one has to.

The keepers pairing Enshalla and Eric aren't thinking about filling Lowry Park's coffers; they want to populate the planet with more tigers. It wasn't even up to the keepers, or the zoo, to decide whether Enshalla and Eric could breed. Before putting them together, Lowry Park had to seek permission from a program that oversees the welfare of endangered species in captivity.

Should the two tigers produce a litter of cubs, it will be good for the genetic future of their species. And for Lowry Park's bottom line.

At the zoo, higher aspirations overlap with economic motives. The desire to save the planet is woven with the necessity of economic survival. Lowry Park is a nonprofit organization, but it must still earn its way. This is particularly true now, in the summer of 2003, as the zoo embarks on the largest expansion in its history.

The powers that be have decided to take Lowry Park to the next level, transforming it from a respected mid-sized institution into a bigger zoo with a sprawling new assortment of animals. That's why the grounds are crawling with bulldozers and construction crews. It's why the zoo is bringing in the African elephants.

A few baby tigers, added to the mix, wouldn't hurt.

From inside the tiger night house, Eric agrees, loudly. The deep bass note of his longing - and of the zoo's ambitions - punctuates the morning.

A keeper enters the corridor outside Eric's den.

"Hey gorgeous."

The keeper turns to Enshalla, in her den, separate from Eric's.

"Hi princess."

Enshalla, proud as always, answers with a half-snort.

The queen does not tolerate familiarity. Which is exactly the problem. How many more males can the zoo bring before her? How many more chances does she have?

- - - 

The chimpanzees are cycling through another episode of their daily soap opera.

"Drama queens," the keepers call them, and for good reason.

Led by an older male named Herman, the chimps shriek and complain and chase one another. The keepers almost never know what triggers these mini-outbursts. But usually it's Herman who settles them.

Herman is the zoo's most famous resident. He is its living memory, the walking embodiment of Lowry Park's history. There are approximately 1,600 animals at Lowry Park, and each is assigned a number. Herman's number is 000001.

Born in Africa and raised as a family pet for the first few years of his life, he has reigned at Lowry Park for three decades - longer than any other animal or any of the humans who work here. He arrived in the early '70s, when Lowry Park was derided as one of the most wretched zoos in the United States, and watched in the late '80s as the original cages were replaced with more progressive, open exhibits.

As Lowry Park Zoo reinvents itself again, Herman rules on. The king is approaching 40 now. He moves more slowly than he used to, but still declares his dominance with a series of repeated displays. He rocks from side to side, waves his arms, marches back and forth like a general parading. If he sees someone placing a hand on the shoulder of one of the female keepers, he throws dirt and pounds his body against the walls of the exhibit.

"We better move out of sight," the keeper will say.

Herman suffers from an identity crisis. For all his intelligence and personality, he does not appear to fully understand that he is a chimp. His early years, being clothed and treated like a human child, have left him in profound confusion. Though several female chimps are sexually available to him, he is attracted only to human females. This is disastrous for him because it prevents him from ever mating or reproducing or joining his own species. Surrounded by other chimps, he remains fundamentally disconnected.

Watching Herman at his perch, stamping back and forth, it becomes easy to understand the ambivalence so many people feel toward zoos. To know that he has lived in this one enclosure for so long, so far from where he belongs, it's almost impossible not to feel a sense of loss.

But seeing Herman triggers wonder, too. If you stand in front of the exhibit and meet his gaze when he is calm, a glimmer of recognition sparks between you. The reality of him - the undeniability of him as he scratches his head and studies you in return - makes you catch your breath.

The same tangle of reactions twists inside you as you walk through the rest of the zoo, seeing all the animals collected inside these walls. Joy vies with regret. Delight is weighted with guilt.

All zoos, even the most enlightened, are built upon an idea both beguiling and repellent - the notion that we can seek out the wildness of the world and behold its beauty, but that we must first contain that wildness.

Zoos argue that they are fighting for the conservation of the Earth, that they educate the public and provide refuge and support for vanishing species. And they are right.

Animal rights groups argue that zoos traffic in living creatures, exploiting them for financial gain and amusement. And they are right.

Caught inside this contradiction are the animals themselves, and the humans charged with their well-being.

At Lowry Park, the keepers take pride in the difference they make in the survival of so many species. And yet, these same keepers will admit that to work in any zoo is to live with ambivalence. They see it when they go to the grocery and glimpse the distaste on other shoppers' faces once they've noticed Lowry Park's insignia on their shirt. They see it at parties when they tell someone where they work and the other person grimaces.

The keepers must come to terms with their own ambivalence. They love animals and are deeply attached to the ones in their care. But their attachment does not blind them to the moral complexities of what they do.

Since it was announced that Lowry Park and San Diego were purchasing 11 elephants from Swaziland, many keepers have reacted with quiet unease. The difficulties of caring for elephants are well-known in zoo circles. Until now, no institution has imported African elephants into the United States in more than a decade.

At Lowry Park, the staff has heard the official rationale for buying the elephants: the overcrowding in the Swazi game parks, the fact that the elephants were slated to be killed. Yet for all the altruistic talk of rescuing these animals, there is no question that Lowry Park is gaining a coveted prize in return. Already the zoo is constructing a huge new African section, intended to showcase the elephants.

Taking these animals from the wild is complicated enough, even if it did save their lives. But to build a new wing on their backs? Some keepers worry about what this move will mean for the elephants, what it might reveal about the future of Lowry Park. To them, the zoo's resources seem stretched to the breaking point.

They wonder if the zoo, in its dreams of expansion, might have pushed too far.

- - - 

Above the waves and the clouds, the 747 sails on. Sunlight burns along the wings. A thin trail of exhaust stretches behind, etched across a canvas of perfect blue.

Inside the hold, some of the elephants are drifting in and out of sleep. Others are more alert, the effects of their drugs slowly wearing off.

Mick Reilly, exhausted, keeps moving back and forth between them. He murmurs reassurance in a language they will recognize.

"Kahle mfana," says Mick, speaking in siSwati, the native tongue of Swaziland. "Kudolunga."

Steady, boy. It will be okay.

A South African veterinarian named Chris Kingsley works nearby, assessing the elephants' condition. The vet is watching their respiration patterns, checking to see if they're responsive to sounds around them, making sure that none are shivering or showing other telltale signs of trauma.

Mick and Chris have been on their feet for more than 40 hours, since before dawn early Wednesday morning, when the game park crews in Swaziland began tranquilizing the elephants inside the boma - a fenced corral where the animals had been kept in preparation for the journey - and then moving them via a conveyor belt and a crane on flatbed trucks to be driven to Manzini, the nearest city with an airport.

Now, as the 747 carries them across the equator and backward through eight time zones, the divide between morning and afternoon blurs.

All of the elephants are young adults, between 10 and 12 years old. Seven are headed for San Diego. The remaining four will be unloaded first in Tampa.

So far they seem to be doing well. Early into the flight, Mick and Chris were concerned about Mbali. She's the youngest and smallest elephant of the group; she's named after one of Mick's daughters. At first Mbali wasn't eating or drinking. She simply lay in her crate. Chris had the impression she was depressed. Now, a few hours later, the young elephant seems to have recovered. She's standing, drinking water with her trunk, responding to the sound of the humans' voices.

The elephants are vocalizing, too, sending out waves of rumblings that Mick and Chris can feel in their chests. The two of them are startled when one of the males trumpets.

The bulls are more restless than the cows. Mick can see them leaning against the interior of their crates, pushing with their feet, testing the strength of the walls. A thought comes to him. What if one breaks out?

In his mind, he sees the elephant charging toward the front of the plane, into the cockpit, through the nose. The bull plummets toward the ocean far below. The shattered 747 - no more pilots, no controls - tumbles close behind.

- - - 

The savannah, alive just after sunset. Anvil bats searching for fruit in the falling light, a bush baby wailing somewhere in the trees. A nearly full moon shines down on a herd of elephants chewing their way through what's left of the umbrella acacias inside Mkhaya Game Reserve.

Mkhaya, a small patch of green in the middle of Swaziland, is where some of the elephants sent to the zoos once lived. The elephants here, feeding under the moon, were their herd.

Before deciding what to think about moving the elephants to the zoos, it helps to see what their lives were like before, wandering the bush in Swaziland. So you come to Mkhaya and go looking for the herd.

It's a good-sized group, 16 elephants, and even though they are the largest land mammals on Earth and are making a racket, knocking down the acacias, snapping branches and peeling bark with their tusks, they seem to materialize from nowhere.

One moment you are riding in a Land Rover, lurching through the bush along a winding dirt road, wondering if you will see any of Mkhaya's elephants tonight. Then they loom like great gray ghosts. Two calves hurry toward their mothers and aunts. A towering bull, his tusks faintly glowing in the moonlight, moves from the shadows into red leopard grass only 20 feet away.

"Here's my big boy," says someone in the back row of the Land Rover. "Come over and say hello."

As if on cue, the bull steps into the road and begins walking toward the vehicle. He doesn't appear angry. Just insistent.

Behind the wheel of the Land Rover, the guide shifts into reverse. He's hurrying backward down the road when, in his mirror, he spies one of the females waiting beside a bush willow. As the vehicle approaches, the cow bends the tree across the road and holds it there. She makes it look easy.

Without slowing down, the guide turns the wheel, taking the Rover off the road - still in reverse - and maneuvering around both the elephant and her roadblock. He keeps his foot on the gas, tearing backward over a little hill and across a dry creek bed, until he's sure none of the herd is following.

You struggle to process what you've just witnessed. What was the elephant doing?

The guide smiles, shrugs. "She was just being naughty. They've got a sense of humor - more than people realize."

Naughty? Didn't that cow just conspire with a tree to trap us?

"She was definitely trying to block our way," he says. "It's just not good to drive through an elephant herd. They don't like you to drive through. They want you to listen to them."

Driving back to camp, he talks about how elephants get irritated when they're not in control. He says helicopter pilots have seen elephants grab small trees and shake them, as if trying to swat the helicopters from the sky.

Americans may think of Africa as a continent of vast, unclaimed spaces, where species can roam to the horizon and beyond. In reality, humans have occupied so much of the continent that many animals are confined inside game parks. Although these parks are often huge by our standards - sometimes stretching across hundreds of miles - the animals increasingly find their movement restricted by human boundaries, human considerations, human priorities.

As our species paves over the planet, we seek solace in the myth of unlimited freedom. We watch The Lion King with our kids, singing along as Simba and Pumbaa and Timon explore the endless veldt, majestically celebrating the circle of life. But the truth is, the circle of life is constantly shrinking. If you're going to see a lion, even in Africa, it will almost certainly be on a tour inside a fenced park.

The conflict unfolds in miniature inside Swaziland, a country smaller than New Jersey. Although elephants once thrived here, the only two places where they can be found today are inside Mkhaya and at another fenced reserve, Hlane Royal National Park, about an hour's drive north.

Compared with the mammoth game parks in South Africa and other neighboring countries, Mkhaya and Hlane are tiny. Their animal populations are relatively small as well. Only a few dozen elephants live inside the two parks.

They arrived as calves between 1987 and 1994 from Kruger National Park in South Africa. Elephants are one of this area's most beloved species, but also one of the most destructive in their ability to alter an entire ecosystem. They feed for up to 18 hours a day, peeling bark from trees until the trees are stripped and dying.

For years now, the elephants in Swaziland have been ripping the bark off so many trees - especially the acacias, their favorites - and knocking down so many other trees that they have largely deforested entire sections of Mkhaya and Hlane. The depletion of the parks threatens the future of the eagles and owls and vultures that nest in those trees. It also poses a serious challenge for the black rhinos - one of the most endangered species in Africa - that depend on similar vegetation for their diet.

In Hlane, the devastation is startling. Stand at one of the park's interior fences and look toward the side where there are no elephants, and you'll see lush green trees and bushes. Turn your head a few inches and look on the other side of the fence, toward the area where Hlane's elephants live, and all you see are miles of dead trees.

- - - 

In the late '90s, when the Reilly family was first trying to cope with the elephant problem, they did not even consider zoos.

For decades, Mick Reilly and his father, Ted, had fought for the protection of animals inside Swaziland. Working with the Swazi king, they turned the family farm into a wildlife sanctuary and created two more reserves at Mkhaya and Hlane, all run by a nonprofit trust. After devoting so much of their lives to preserving open spaces for animals, the notion of confining elephants inside a zoo seemed appalling. In his head, Mick pictured animals pacing in reeking cages.

"We would have personally preferred the animals to go into a wild situation," he says. "I never visited zoos much in my life, and my idea of zoos was the traditional sort of zoo that was around 50 years ago."

The Reillys searched neighboring South Africa for other parks that could take the elephants. But every time they thought they might have found a new home, the permits were denied. South Africa already had more than enough of its own elephants to contend with.

They considered other places in Africa. But almost everywhere they looked, the threat of poaching seemed too great. The Reillys did not want Mkhaya's and Hlane's elephants to end up dead, their meat and tusks sold on the black market. But if they could not find an alternative, Mick and Ted believed they would have no choice but to destroy some of the herd themselves.

Elephant culls are part of southern Africa's history, especially in nearby Kruger National Park. Determined to protect biodiversity inside Kruger, the park controlled the huge elephant population with annual culls for years, killing off thousands. The practice finally ended under protests from animal rights groups.

Swaziland's elephants were all survivors of the Kruger culls. Now the Reillys felt they had no choice but to consider another cull inside the Swazi parks.

"We had run out of time," Mick says.

It was right about then that the two zoos - first San Diego, then Lowry Park - suggested another possibility. Officials from both zoos flew to Swaziland to describe the new homes they could offer the elephants. San Diego already had a 3-acre elephant exhibit; Lowry Park was willing to build one of similar size.

The zoos invited the Reillys to see the facilities for themselves. Mick flew to the United States, toured both zoos and was impressed, not just with the exhibits but with the expertise of the staffs and the care they offered. The Reillys had no doubt that for the elephants, the game parks were still preferable to even the best of zoos. But if there was no more room in the parks, then San Diego and Lowry Park made sense.

"There are zoos," says Ted, "and there are zoos."

The zoos agreed to pay the game parks $12,000 for each elephant. The money, the Reillys said, would go to management of the parks, protection of the animals within and the purchase of more park land.

In their permit applications, Lowry Park and San Diego pointed out that the arrival of 11 wild elephants would benefit zoos around the United States. Because it had been so long since any African elephants had been brought into the United States, the captive elephant population was aging and was having trouble reproducing. Bringing in the Swazi elephants - all designated for breeding - would rejuvenate the genetic pool.

- - - 

Lowry Park had not exhibited elephants in 10 years, ever since 1993, when an Asian elephant killed one of the zoo's keepers. In the days after the young woman's death, the zoo closed the exhibit and sent its two elephants to new homes. Now Lowry Park had to build new facilities, hire new elephant keepers and adopt updated protocols to protect the staff.

In Swaziland, the Reillys and the rest of the staff at Mkhaya and Hlane had to figure out which elephants would be chosen, then move them temporarily into the boma and ready them for their journey. Working with the zoos, the Reillys designated 13 elephants from two herds at Mkhaya and Hlane - the 11 elephants intended for the trip, plus two more in case any became unfit for the flight or died during the stress of the preparations.

There was another challenge. The Reillys worried that the elephants who were not chosen might be traumatized if they witnessed members of their group being tranquilized and taken away by ground crews. As calves, these elephants had already seen the killing of their families inside Kruger. To their eyes, the mass removal to the boma could easily look like another cull. To avoid that shock and any resulting hostility toward the park's rangers and visitors, the Reillys decided on a different plan.

In March 2003, on the day the 13 were to be gathered, a helicopter crew darted every elephant in the two herds, knocking them all out so none would be awake to see the removal.

The elephants were loaded onto trucks and taken to the boma in Mkhaya. By then, a coalition of animal rights groups, including Born Free USA and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was protesting and organizing letter-writing campaigns and filing a lawsuit in federal court to block the importation.

"If the elephants are euthanized," said Katherine Meyer, a lawyer for the animal rights groups, "that would be a better outcome than to have these elephants put in crates, put on an airplane, brought over here, trained with bull hooks, put in cages and live the rest of their lives in captivity."

One day that summer, three protesters bought admission into Lowry Park and made their way into the zoo's administrative offices, where they began yelling about the elephants and knocking things off desks. Police charged them with trespassing and disorderly conduct. A week later, protesters blocked the entrance to the San Diego Zoo, dumping manure from a truck. A man dressed in a fuzzy gray elephant costume locked himself in the truck and was later led away in handcuffs.

In Swaziland, the Reilly family found itself denounced by members of the country's parliament, the local newspapers, even other elephant experts. Nine researchers studying wild elephants in Kenya released an open letter protesting the move, citing the intricacy of elephants' emotional lives and the damage to those lives in captivity.

"We believe the time has come," the researchers wrote, "to consider them as sentient beings and not as so much money on the hoof to be captured and sold and displayed for our own use. We should be beyond the exploitation of animals as complex and magnificent as elephants."

PETA offered to pay for moving them to other parks in Africa. Others suggested that the Reillys' talk of a cull was an empty threat, designed to pressure officials in the United States to approve the permits.

Mick and Ted were unprepared for the vitriol. There was no crywhen they culled impalas or warthogs. If the animal rights groups truly believed the crisis in the parks was a convenient fiction, why didn't they send someone to tour Hlane and its moonscape of dead trees?

By now it was August 2003, and the elephants had been in the bomas for five months. They were becoming restless. One day, early on, several tried to break through the electrified fence, using another elephant as a battering ram. They chose Mbali - the small female named after Mick's daughter - and thronged together to push her through the fence, apparently so they wouldn't have to touch it themselves. When the current traveled through Mbali and shocked them, too, it put a quick end to their plan.

In Washington, the legal arguments went back and forth in federal court. The government permits had been approved, but now memoranda were being filed, injunctions requested, motions granted and denied and appealed. Finally, on Aug. 15, two circuit judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington denied one last emergency motion from the animal rights groups.

Mick and his father began the final preparations in the boma. It was time to get the elephants into the air.

- - - 

The747's engines drone on and on. Mick, still standing, has lost track of time. All he knows is that the sun has finally left the sky and that they are flying in darkness again.

A little while ago, they stopped in Barbados for refueling. Now they are headed for Florida.

Mbali, the little one, is among the four chosen by Lowry Park. She has been sleeping, off and on. Does she still feel the jolt in the boma, when the other elephants pushed her into the electric fence? Does she see herself back in the park, wandering through the leopard grass and umbrella thorns?

Inside the hold, among the crates, there is a shift in equilibrium. The plane is descending through the clouds, toward a galaxy of shimmering lights.

Tampa.

- - - 

About the series

Over four years, St. Petersburg Times staff writer Thomas French and staff photographer Stefanie Boyar chronicled life inside Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. With the zoo's permission, they followed the keepers and the animals, interviewing everyone from the volunteers to the CEO.

French and Boyar witnessed most of the events described in this series. By necessity, some scenes were reconstructed. Today's sections describing how the elephants were gathered in Swaziland are based on interviews with zoo officials, Mick and Ted Reilly and other members of their family, and on court documents and other records.

The scenes on the 747 are based on interviews with Mick Reilly and Chris Kingsley, the two people working with the elephants during the flight.

Last spring, French flew to Africa to interview the Reillys and to see the game parks where the elephants lived before they were brought to the United States. The second half of today's story, including the scene where the elephant tries to block the Land Rover, is based on French's reporting in Swaziland. 

Thomas French can be reached at french@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8486.