Read The Cowboy and his Elephant Online

Authors: Malcolm MacPherson

The Cowboy and his Elephant


Also by Malcolm MacPherson

The Lucifer Key
The Blood of
The Black Box
Time Bomb
In Cahoots
The Black Box




Malcolm MacPherson

St. Martin’s Griffin  
  New York





An imprint of St. Martin’s Press.


. Copyright © 2001 by Malcolm MacPherson. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Book design by Michelle McMillian

Frontispiece and all photographs courtesy of Robert Norris.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

MacPherson, Malcolm.

The cowboy and his elephant : the story of a remarkable friendship / Malcolm MacPherson.—1st St. Martin’s Griffin edition.

      p. cm.

ISBN 0-312-25209-9 (hc)

ISBN 0-312-30406-4 (pbk)

1. African elephant—United States. 2. Norris, Bob (Robert C.).

 I. Title.

 QL737.P98M34 2001




10   9   8   7   6



or the author, this book is dedicated to

Jane Erkenbeck, with love and appreciation

And for Robert Norris, this book is also dedicated to

The Autism Foundation,
My loving wife, Jane,
Our children and grandchildren,
And all animal lovers wherever they might be



There’s right and there’s wrong. You get to do one or the other. You do one, and you’re living. You do the other, and you may be walking around, but you’re as dead as a beaver hat.




The elephant that escapes the cull is called the Storyteller. She tells other elephants of the good and evil that men have done to her and her kind, and holds these truths in her heart forever. And in the end, in summing up, her story is taken into account. She is ancient and wise and sublime, and her words weigh heavily in the final ledger.

Elephant hunters in Africa believe this to be true. One old hunter, sitting at a campfire after the sun falls gives voice to his fear. Insistence, awe, and a hint of unease tinge his voice when he recalls, “All the years when we went for a herd we said that
not one elephant must escape us
! If one does, we will follow her the rest of our days. No matter what! She must not be allowed to tell other elephants what she saw. Elephants
talk to each other. Yes! We know. We know if from hunting them and we have hunted them forever. Not one must ever get out alive. Listen to me!
This is true.
The Storyteller is real.”


hat the old hunter knows is legend. Among all the animals no tighter bond of emotion exists than the one between female elephants, who live with their mothers until they die. Through the ages they have wandered the plains of southern Africa in mother-daughter-grandmother “communions.” They have lived
one another, with no conceivable distinct existence. Indeed, separation condemns them to a living death by the most painful of means—longing for the herd. Only a special few elephants have ever triumphed over this loss and loneliness. One of them was born in Zimbabwe in the spring of 1988.



short time before her birth, in the last contractions of labor, her mother had squatted on her hind legs, her sides heaving with the weight of her burden. With a bellow and gargantuan groans and sighs she pushed the infant from her womb neck first, with its head tucked between its long forelegs, somewhat resembling a high diver. The light-gray-colored bundle dropped onto the ground with a soft thud and lay in stillness inside the clear wrapping of the amnion. Other elephants looked on, apparently with intense curiosity.

The mother let out a sigh and a shudder. She extended her trunk and helped her baby escape the sac that had been her world for the twenty-two months since her conception. The infant struggled with an instinctive urgency to steady her own ungainly legs. She slipped in the mud of mixed dirt and amniotic fluid. She raised herself again, but she did not stay upright. Drained by the effort of standing, falling, and falling again, she tried to raise herself one last time. Now her aunties, as elephant researchers sometimes call older females, rushed in to steady her. With their pointed pink trunk “fingers” they touched her body tenderly.

With that a fanfare of trumpeting, harrumphs, rumbles, and thunderous stomping and dusting—altogether a raucous celebration—filled the air. The females trumpeted and bellowed, defecated, and ran in shambling circles of pure elephants’ joy.

Hearing the news from afar, relatives from the herd came
around. The bulls stood apart, throwing trunks of powder-dry ocher dust in clouds over their heads and rumbling to one another, curious and aloof. They eyed the teenage females in passing to try to judge their readiness to breed. And soon, as always, they lost interest and went back to sparring with their tusks. They posed, huge and majestic, and challenged one another with playful charges and furious dustings, squabbling over who was better than whom.

The females paid them slight heed. As they fussed over the baby, their displays of genuine caring were as heartwarming as any in nature. The birth brought them great pleasure—or whatever elephants feel when theirs is
world in which a baby has been born. This generosity of spirit reflected some deeper, mysterious, and unique emotion that only some few females of the mammalian species can feel. In this female world of such close community, the newborn was
as if she had emerged from their collective elephant-family womb. The baby was their new daughter, granddaughter, cousin, and niece, but to each elephant of childbearing age, as an individual, she was also her baby alone.

And what an arrival she was! Shiny and new, tippy on her feet and nearly blinded by the sharp African light, she peeked out from between her mother’s legs and uttered her first cry of “P
,” the tiny plaint of a newborn that means “I’m hungry.” Her mother gave a soothing rumble from deep within her, and rich, chalk-colored milk dripped from her nipples.

As a normal and, one might say,
baby, the newborn stood about two and a half feet tall at the shoulders and weighed slightly under 150 pounds. She was battleship gray (bright pink behind her ears), with baggy pink skin bunched at her knees like a child in her grandpa’s long underwear. The hair on her head—a frizzy, wine-colored cap—gave her a confused, sleepy look, like someone whom the inconvenience of birth had startled out of a delicious dream. Standing in the shadow of her mother’s flanks, she explored her own being with a dubious mien.

She swayed her trunk as if it were a deadweight. An irritable look in her sharp brown eyes seemed to say,
it is on the front of my face is a mistake. Please, whoever gave it to me, remove it.
She had no control over the trunk’s finer functions and only a modicum of command over the larger of its forty-thousand muscles. For now it was plainly a nuisance. She stepped on it with a squeak of pain. It got in the way of her mouth, suckling her mother’s breasts. She slept on it under her head when she lay down. It altogether seemed to be a bother, and would remain a bafflement for some time to come.

Her map-of-Africa ears, rubbery and pinned to her head, soon flared and startled her. Their purpose too was hard for her to grasp. She could see them with her peripheral vision, and when their shadows fell on the Kalahari sands, she spooked, screamed, and ran to find her mother.

Her legs were long, thin, and unsteady. In the coming weeks she would watch the older females cross their back
legs at the knees while standing in repose, and when she tried to imitate them, she would fall over on her side. Her legs commanded her in directions she did not wish to go, like someone at the mercy of strong gusts of wind.

Her broad forelegs were like cumbersome round winter boots encasing the dainty feet of a ballerina
on pointe.
She could feel herself walking gracefully on tiptoes, but when she looked down she saw only tree stumps. She could not even glimpse her tail, which hung down from the end of her ridged spine like a short hemp strand with a frizzy, blown-apart tip that resembled nothing so much as an exploded trick cigar. Neither could she see around her bowed sides how the skin under her tail and around her back thighs drooped like oversize trousers slipping down to her knees.

As a whole, if her mother or her aunties had whispered to her in those first hours after her birth that God had drawn her as a silly cartoon, she would have had to agree. She possessed no sleekness, no aerodynamics, no impression of grace or speed or agility.

Though her mother, as a young adult, had grown into her mature elephant proportions, she, like all elephants, would continue to expand in size and weight throughout her life. She towered over her baby. Nine feet tall at her shoulders and weighing 4,400 pounds, she gave scale to the baby’s tiny size and weight. She was the image of what the baby would grow up to be over a long period of physical maturation that parallels the stages of human development.



or now, infancy exposed in stark relief the baby’s parts: Nothing born should have had such big ears, and a nose like a hose, and such size and girth, and a tail that was hardly worthy of the name. The baby was smaller than most. Ultimately her size might shape her character: She could grow up as a runt or, by compensating for her size with intelligence and a capacity to adapt, she could become a leader. It was too soon to tell.

But Amy—as she would later come to be called—
already different. Her brownish, amber-colored eyes contained none of the hard darkness of the bulls or the more common dark reddish-black of other females. It was a color said to signify intelligence. Her eyes peered out of her head as if they belonged to another creature inside her baggy skin. Her baffled gaze posed the same enigma that the older female elephants raised when they would pause in unison to look skyward as a cloud floated by. According to the wise old Brahman priests in India, elephants were gods who worshiped the sun and the moon.

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