By the time I got to San Andreas, I’d been up for four hours and driving for close to two. Not that I minded; the sun was out, the highways were clear, and there was something exhilarating about looking out at hazy blue skies and open fields for miles around. I’d made a game of finding the least staticky radio stations on any given stretch of road, and found myself singing happily along to Craig Morgan as he crooned about his life as a God-fearin’, hardworkin’ combine driver. It was the kind of song that made me rethink my life goals.
Except not really. I was making my way to an animal sanctuary for a story I was putting together on conservation. I don’t do many of those – they don’t often make headlines – but the draw of seeing elephants was too much to resist. So less than a day after I landed in Oakland, I rented a car and drove 100 miles east into farmland and hills in search of color (journo-speak for characters and setting) for my story.
I had no intention of switching to driving farm equipment anytime soon, no matter how much fun Mr. Morgan insisted it was.
At the sanctuary’s main entrance, marked with a rusted wrought-iron decorated with – you guessed it! – elephants, a voice on the intercom welcomed me warmly, saying I was expected. The gates swung open, and I drove up a narrow road to a cabin perched on a low hill.
Ed came out as I dumped my shit into my backpack and got out of the car.
“You’ve been driving a while,” he said by way of greeting. “Do you want to use the bathroom?”
I had not seen a functioning gas station – or at least, one I felt I wanted to stop at – in miles. I accepted gratefully.
Niceties over and my bladder relieved, Ed decided we find a more suitable place to chat. I climbed into his dusty gray Dodge pickup, and soon we were rolling over a dirt path up to a chain-link fence that separated the animal preserve from the rest of the property. It felt like something out of “Jurassic Park” (the first one): I could almost hear that John Williams theme song playing. (I even surreptitiously scanned the skies for pterodactyl. No luck.)
But around me were animals to make Dorothy proud. A tiger peeked from behind some bushes. A black bear lounged in the shade. All were behind enclosures – a fact that Ed continually lamented. He was adamantly anti-captivity, but felt that in the case of the animals around us, this was the best that could be had – better than spending a lifetime in a cramped exhibit or getting torn apart in the wild. (Most of his charges had never been without human care, such as it was.)
We drove past the elephant enclosure, and I saw two of the animals walking in slow, heavy steps. My breath caught. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen elephants up close – or if I ever had. They were beautiful.
Ed parked the pickup at the top of a hill overlooking the preserve. From up there, we could see three or four elephants in the distance, meandering in separate sections of their 80-acre spread. To our right was maybe 1,000 acres of untouched forest, which Ed told me served as a buffer for the outside world. City kid that I am, I gaped for a moment at the sight of so much open land.
Then we got down to business.
For two hours, I scribbled furiously as Ed – who has worked with animals and fought for their welfare for more than 20 years – talked to me about his work and his belief in the kind of conservation that didn’t necessitate the killing or capturing of animals. The sun beat down on us and the wind riffled our hair.
“What people are doing is comparing the welfare of elephants in captivity, here, and the welfare of elephants in captivity, here,” Ed said, indicating two separate places with his hands. “What they should be doing is comparing it to the wild. You can hang a ball with peanuts in it, but it becomes an old game really fast.”
I studied this man with the messy white hair and gray cargo pants and thought that he resembled someone’s granddad more than he did a fiery activist. But that just goes to show that people don’t always look like what they are.
We went to see the elephants. I met Thika, a 46-year-old African female, whom Ed lured towards us with fresh hay and vegetables. I snapped photos as quick as I could, alternating between my iPhone and a borrowed camera. We moved on to Toka, whose long, lovely tusks glinted in the noonday sun. She came up to the edge of her fence as Ed tossed carrots and guava her way.
As we meandered from one pen to another, Ed talked about how the elephants came to the sanctuary weak and suffering from years in captivity. Nick, an Asian bull elephant, had been forced to ride tricycles at age two. Though Ed had known their stories for years, shock clouded his voice as he shared them with me.
But the visit was more than a lesson in human cruelty. We discussed the damage that elephants in the wild do to poor farming communities in India and Africa, and how important it was that humans learn to coexist peacefully with nature. Towards the end of our conversation and after some prodding, Ed expressed a cautious optimism about the future of conservation –and of the planet.
At the end of the visit, I said goodbye to Nick (he was the last elephant we saw), shook Ed’s hand, and climbed back into my rental. It was just before 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the open road beckoned.
I drove back to Oakland with hay stuck on my shoes and the smell of the outdoors clinging to my skin and hair. I tried to look for another Craig Morgan song to sing along to, but to no avail.
And I thought, I’m going to like California.