for Shirley

Shirley’s Checkered Past

Elephant calf, culled from herd,
you travel to North America.
Endure the loss of country.
Endure chains and circus crowds.
Survive a shipboard fire, and
the jarring wounds of bullhooks,
keeping you in line,
keeping you dancing beneath
wounds the circus disguises for crowds
with pounds of velvet and rhinestones
that glitter under Big Top lights,
encouraging human hoopla
perpetuating elephant subjugation
and the culling of your herds.

After 30 years, a bull elephant
stampedes into you, Shirley,
breaking a leg that never sets right.
Earning you a home
in the Louisiana Purchase Zoo.

A lone elephant
and one man,
your keeper, your friend.

For 22 years Solomon James lays his hands on you, and
you gently push your weight against them.
For 22 years Solomon brings you
tree branch toys and company.
Shirley girl
For 22 years Solomon aims a hose
at your fire scarred head.
For 22 years Solomon
shackles and unshackles you
to prepare you for public pleasure.

The Journey to Shirley’s Future

After 22 years, the zoo retires Shirley
to The Elelphant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee
where other elephants roam free.

Solomon shackles a reluctant Shirley and
lures her onto a truck with carrot and talk.
He does not hurry her.
Ratcheting and cranking chains help pull her close
until Shirley slowly lifts her bent back leg up,
and onto the truck that leads to her forever.

Yesterday never forgotten,
they drive through the cool of night.
Listening to highway sounds and dancing air,
Solomon imagines Shirley’s mind running
through the years, spreading out like sand
or the feel of her leathery gray skin
beneath the palms of his hands.

Shirley Comes Home

After 14 hours on the road,
Shirley steps off her last truck home.
Solomon unshackles Shirley.
She stands behind bars and in walks Tara,
the first elephant Shirley’s seen in twenty some years.
Tentatively touching trunks meet and greet
while Solomon smiles with glistening eyes.

As he bathes Shirley one last time
Solomon’s soft voice soothes,
“They’ll be no more chains. You’re free now.
I don’t know who was the first to put a chain on you Shirley,
but I’m glad to know, that I am the last to take it off.
You’re free at last.”

Tears flow from Shirley’s eyes
as Solomon’s strong brown fingers
spread love stirred deep into lines
that stretch years of stories across her skin.

Shirley and Jenny

At nightfall, a symphony of trumpets, grunts and groans
sing from the barn.

A year before Shirley’s injury,
elephant calf Jenny,
freshly culled and captive,
joined Shirley’s circus.
Jenny met Shirley fresh from the boat.
Remembered bonds bend steel bars that separate
until humans intervene to open elephant to
flesh against flesh.
Over 100,000 trunk muscles quiver to explore
the passage of twenty some years.

Later, when life becomes home,
Shirley and Jenny walk side by side
trunks placed upon each other’s hearts.

Birds fly above the pond where Jenny sprays
her beloved friend, her North American mother,
basking sweetly in the shady shallows
of a sanctuary pond.

Brenda Warren 2013

Process Notes:
The Elephant Sanctuary has long held a deep place in my heart. When a poem would not come easily this week, I decided to write a poem chronicling Shirley’s story. Here is a link to a video of the story: The Urban Elephant: Shirley’s Story. This 12 minute video makes me cry, even after more than two dozen views. If you are a teacher, share it with students. Spread the story. Compassion grows when children see Solomon say good bye, and then Jenny comes along. Double whammy! Not only that, your students will LOVE to see you cry.

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19 thoughts on “for Shirley

  1. Wiping away a tear. Read it to Chloe and she immediately watched the video. She is a dauntless crusader to stop shark fining and all other animal abuse. This was a treat for us to read and find out about Shirley. Very powerfully moving. Thank you Brenda. 🙂


  2. If we must see exotic animals up close so much better that they should be in animal sanctuaries or free range zoos where so semblance of freedom is given. Sadly I do remember with shame the old fashioned zoos where the punished inmates were on display.


  3. This brought tears to my eyes for so many reasons – We have an elephant in our zoo here in Edmonton that has been the subject of controversy for too many years to count … There have been petitions beyond number to move Lucy to Tennessee and good arguments on both sides pro and con. I am an uber elephant lover and have been a Lucy supporter from what feels like the beginning of time, helping the zoo get a companion elephant for her, working to raise money to change her admittedly tawdry living conditions but also, always being one of the close watchers with several local vets and other concerned citizens who have always been trying to determine what was best for Lucy. For many years Lucy did well here, seemed content – even happy – especially while she had Sara with her. When Sara died, Lucy grieved hard and her health deteriorated very rapidly. No matter what the vets tried (and specialists were brought in from all over the world) she never really fully recovered and that’s when the trouble started. Many said she should be moved – it was natural for her to be living so far north and in isolation. True. Unfortunately, by then, it was determined Lucy was too old and too frail to make that lengthy a trip. It would actually be harder on her to leave the familiarity of her caregivers – she has many – who adore her and do something so harmful to her health…the debate rages on. Bob Barker has come here more than once to put pressure on the city. I go to see Lucy when I can. She doesn’t seem unhappy but who can tell? I know she shouldn’t be by herself in a heated enclosure with a smallish place to roam but she paints pictures (something she stopped doing after Sara died) and she’ll play ball and other games with her caregivers…and she rumbles often – that contented noise that elephants make like purring. As humans, we have to believe we’re doing right by her.


  4. Brenda, you have surpassed yourself: you have written a story poem that, as you say, should be read to children everywhere; you have written a poem that makes every reader fill up with sympathy; and what’s more, it is a Wordle. I should like to keep this one in my “other bloggers’ work to be read again and again” file.


  5. Brenda, sometimes think you and I move on very similar paths. Took some time out yesterday to watch the short film about Christian the Lion. I’ve watched it so many times, and yet I cry each time I do so. I can already tell I’m gonna do the same with Shirley’s story, in fact your words started it already. Thank you,



  6. The lives around us, be they human or not, are filled with unknown cages. I look to the day when we – the world -and all life whirling around the sun can be unshackled. Wonderful write Brenda. Grabbing a tissue-


  7. Absolutely adore your for Shirley. I have misty eyes. I wrote a poem some years ago about feeling like a tethered elephant (the poem was about work). Beautiful tribute to Shirley and Solomon. I’m off to watch the video.


  8. This is so beautiful, Brenda! Put a lump in my throat. A moving tale of loss and love and devotion! I especially liked:
    “Onto the truck that leads to her forever.”
    “Yesterday never forgotten,
    they drive through the cool of night.
    Listening to highway sounds and dancing air,
    Solomon imagines Shirley’s mind running
    through the years, spreading out like sand
    or the feel of her leathery gray skin
    beneath the palms of his hands.”

    I have missed The Whirl. Hope I can stay inspired. Also, just signed on for NaPo.


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