Love has been on my mind a lot lately. Not in a dopamine-soaked, romantic comedy kind of way, but more in the sense of grammar. I know, sexy, right? Let me explain.
I’ve been accused more than once of having more compassion for animals than for humans, and I can’t deny it. It’s not that I don’t have compassion for humans. I do. Plenty. I just have more for animals. Incidents of human suffering upset me deeply, but my heart twists into the most exquisitely painful knots when I so much as hear about animal suffering, much less witness it. I can’t help it, I just love animals.
But, that feeling, that love, is a noun. Love(n.) It’s a thing that I experience. It means a lot to me, but it exists only in my head and my heart. It’s my feeling, relevant to, and affecting, no one but me. I don’t mean to minimize it–such feelings are what animate us–just to clarify that when people casually talk about loving something or someone, they usually mean Love(n.), as in, the experience of a feeling with respect to that thing or person.
We can Love(n.) all kinds of things—people, the ocean, kitties, corndogs, your country, go-go boots, God—there is a limitless capacity for Love(n.) in the human heart. It’s not like a pie, where the more pieces you cut it into, the smaller each piece, and thus the less love there is to go around. No, with Love(n.), the more you do it, the more Love(n.) you experience. It’s boundless. Remember? It’s all in your own head. You’re the only thing limiting it.
Love as a verb is a very different story. Love(v.) is not, I don’t think, the act of having a feeling of Love(n.). I think that’s better described as an adjective—Love(adj.)—as in, having the condition of being blessed (or afflicted) with Love(n.) for something or someone (it’s not perfect, I know, just bear with me). Nor am I talking about sexy fun time in this instance. No, Love(v.), in my view, is the action one takes specifically for the benefit of the object of the Love(n.), whatever or whoever that may be. Not actions taken with the motive of obtaining or retaining possession of it, getting the feelings reciprocated, or any other intention that relates to our own needs. Acts, big or small, that are done, not for gain of some kind, but because you know that the object of your Love(n.) needs it. You don’t even have to be right, just genuinely motivated by the belief that what you are doing will bestow a benefit, no matter how small. That’s Love(v.) in my dictionary, and it’s the only way that the Love(n.) we feel inside can become relevant, mean anything, to anyone but ourselves. And, unlike Love(n.), it’s limited. Love(v.) is limited by our time, resources, creativity, energy, inhibitions, etc. There are only so many hours in the day, dollars in the bank, places we can be, and a hundred other things competing for our finite attention. That’s why most of us—myself included—don’t do it, or at least, not very much. That’s not the end of the world, I guess, as long as we confine our Love(n.) to those who will do just fine without us. The problem is, not everyone is going to be just fine without us. Not by a long shot.
Take the Asian elephant. Between poaching and habitat loss, fewer than 1,200 wild elephants remain in peninsular Malaysia. They are critically endangered, and I recently met a man who Loves(v.) them with everything he’s got.
I read about Zali in a Tripadvisor forum about the Malaysian National Elephant Conservation Center in Kuala Gandah. The Center is run by Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, and is the base for the elite “Elephant Unit,” a group of expertly trained elephant cowboys that responds to reports of elephant-human conflict, and relocates the elephants to safer habitats, such as the Taman Negara National Park, to keep them out of harm’s way.
When the Unit finds elephants too sick or injured to survive on their own upon relocation, they take them back to the Center for care.
If, for any reason, an elephant cannot be nursed back into a condition allowing it to be released back into the wild, it remains a resident of the Center, and is then trained to be part of the Unit, assisting the rangers by going along on missions, and using their trunks, bodies and voices to calm and guide the confused and angry wild elephants during capture and transport to the new habitat. The Unit is, thus, a true man-elephant collaboration.
Zali has been part of the Elephant Unit and a volunteer at the Center since the 1980s. A staunch military man with a special forces background, he is the sort of man you involuntarily say “Yes, Sir” to when he addresses you.
He has been chased, kicked, thrashed and had bones broken by wild elephants, and has forgotten more about the pachyderm ways than I could hope to learn if I studied them religiously for the next ten years. He is one tough dude. But, when it comes to his elephants, this tough guy has a big marshmallow heart.
The Unit occasionally finds orphaned baby elephants. Elephants are totally dependent on their mothers for the first three or four years of life, not weaned until about 10, and not fully self-sufficient until they are about 16 years old. So, the Unit cannot relocate a baby or juvenile elephant on its own and expect it to survive. The Center, however, has little to no budget for raising orphans. Enter Zali.
Every day, Zali makes the two-hour trek from Kuala Lumpur out to the Center to feed and care for the orphaned babies, at his own cost. To defray the expense, he occasionally brings private elephant enthusiasts along with him, provided they are willing to kick in to the kitty and roll up their sleeves.
I was happy to do both, so Zali told me to buy a bunch of packages of baby formula and loaves of bread for the babies, and meet him and a couple other volunteers at the end of the monorail line on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
Now, you can visit the Center on your own, as a tourist, and see a few of the older elephants, watch the rangers demonstrate their skills and take them into the river to bathe, and, depending on the level of the water and swiftness of the current, maybe even go in the river with them, under supervision, of course.
The tourist program is designed to educate visitors about what the Center does, and how they train resident elephants to help in the conservation efforts to save wild elephants.
But, if you want to go behind the scenes, actually get in there and take care of the elephants, see the babies, and stay longer than the couple hours that the Center is open to the public, you have to go as one of Zali’s minions. And you’d better be prepared to follow orders.
There will be no lolling about and leisurely exploring the grounds. You will go where you’re told, do what you’re told, and you will keep up. Zali’s got work to do, and you’re there to help him get it done.
There are bushels of papayas to chop, sugar cane to peel and cut so the babies can chew it, poop to scoop, and sheaves of grass to haul.
“When you sweat on the food,” Zali instructed as we stood in the sun, hacking up wheelbarrows full of papayas with a machete, “the elephants will learn your smell, and accept you faster. So, sweat! It’s for your safety!”
By the time you’re done with the morning feeding and cleaning, it’s time to start over again for the afternoon feeding and cleaning. If you wander off, don’t do what you’re told, don’t pull your weight, or otherwise disobey Zali’s orders, be prepared for an army-style dressing down.
It’s as much for your benefit as his, as Zali is not only trying to get his work done, he’s also responsible for the safety of his volunteers while they are inside the Center, working around beasts that could kill you in a flash if they took a mind to. So, be prepared for some Tough Love(v.). If you can take it, you’ll be rewarded a thousand fold.
Zali knows every elephant at the Center, and the stories he told us about them revealed not only his deep regard and respect for the animals, but also his sense of humor. One of the older female elephants, he told us, figured out how to lie on her side and shimmy under the electric fencing of the large paddock to escape and plunder a nearby tapioca root farm, bringing the spoils back to share with the other elephants.
“Ooh, the farmer was so pissed at us!” Zali exclaimed, as he demonstrated how the old dowager elephant had wiggled under the wires. “She is so cheeky,” he said with obvious affection. “We had to put in an extra strand of wire down by the ground to keep her in.”
“Miss Tiger Proof,” Zali beamed with pride, introducing us to another adult female in the main elephant barn. “She got attacked by a tiger, but fought him off, and got away only losing her tail. How embarrassing for that tiger, eh, to have to face his friends after catching an elephant and only getting a tail!”
Dara is just a few years old–too old to be in the nursery with the little babies, but too young to be out in the paddock with the big guys. So, she hangs out with the teenagers in the front barn, who protectively look after her, stroking her with their trunks and cooing to her when she gets upset or spooked by a noise.
Zali showed us how to train her to use her trunk to grasp, and how to communicate with her by making sighing sounds as you offer her food. Like any kid, she is given to moods and spells of naughtiness.
When she decided it would be fun to throw sticks of sugar cane at me—which she did with surprisingly accurate aim—Zali scolded her like any dutiful father would, teaching her manners, and reassuring her afterwards with a loving pat to the shoulder. And it worked. Just one stern word from Zali, and Miss Dara behaved herself like a proper little lady.
Many of the elephants still bear the heartbreaking marks of the injuries that lead them to be at the Center in the first place.
Several have rings of scars around the entire circumference of a leg, showing where they were caught in a snare by poachers looking for tusks or elephant feet to turn into decorative table bases or umbrella stands. One of the Center’s residents lost one of her front feet in a snare. She is alive because of the Center, but they could not save her foot.
Zali nicknamed her “Miss Tripod,” and she is a functional member of the troop, because of the prostheses he fashions for her. The design of the prosthesis is an ongoing project for Zali and the Center. Miss Tripod figured out how to take off the first few iterations, but Zali fixed that glitch. She still goes through them every few months, though, because she’s a growing girl, and outgrows them just like a kid outgrows shoes. And, well, she’s an elephant, and she wears them out quickly. Zali is currently looking for someone to manufacture the latest design of the prosthesis so he can accurately determine the production cost, and then try to crowdsource the funds to keep Miss Tripod in shoes.
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By far, the most visceral memory I took away from my day working with Zali, though, is of Lepar, the littlest baby in the nursery. Little Lepar is just barely a year old, and is covered with copious amounts of bushy black hair. She stands about as high as my hip. Far too young to survive after losing her mama, Lepar would not be here if not for Zali.
As I was feeding her chunks of papaya and sugar cane, she coiled her trunk around my hand and pulled it toward her mouth. “Relax your arm,” Zali said. “Put your thumb out for her.” So, I did. And Lepar put my hand in her toothless mouth…and sucked my thumb. “Now you see why I call her ‘Miss Thumbsucker,’” Zali laughed. I hummed to her softly, like he taught me, and she closed her eyes, leaned against me, and made whimpering baby sounds as she suckled my thumb, just like the sweet, innocent baby she is, with her velvety trunk wrapped around my wrist. I could have cradled her like that forever. “She likes you,” Zali smiled approvingly. “Mother’s touch.”
On the drive back to Kuala Lumpur, sunburned, scratched up, exhausted and exhilarated by a long day of hard work, and hearts overflowing with Love(n.), we stopped at a small village to have some tea and a snack at a stand owned by one of Zali’s friends.
As we chatted, I asked Zali what he would like me to say to all of you about the Center, or him. “Just tell them what is happening to the elephants,” he said. “Tell them what we do here. That’s all. Just tell them about the work we’re trying to do.”
Now, that’s Love(v.).
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If you would like to contact Zali to arrange a day volunteering with the elephants, or to find out any other ways to help him take care of his babies, you can email him directly at email@example.com.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There is apparently a website—www.myelephants.org—and related Facebook page, that purport to solicit donations for the National Elephant Conservation Center at Kuala Gandah, but the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks has officially disclaimed any affiliation with that websites or the bank account for donations listed on the website. Please contact Zali or the Department of Wildlife and National Parks directly if you want to support the elephants.