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.
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
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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