Truncated farewell to elephants with pink slips

November 06, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

WHEN THE NEWS of the elephant layoffs first hit yesterday, I immediately drove out to the zoo to say goodbye to Dolly and Anna, who would soon be in a huge, antiseptic tractor-trailer bound for God knows where, wherever they send elephants that get pink slips.

Look, you know a city's in trouble when they start laying off cops and firemen and municipal workers.

But when they start laying off the elephants, well, it's over, Jack. Time to pack your bags and call a real estate agent.

Nevertheless, that was the story at the Baltimore Zoo: the elephants were history. Budget cuts, a lousy economy, dwindling attendance, all of it was killing the place.

So the zoo was whacking 20 jobs and getting rid of a lot of the animals, even the African elephants. The plan was to ship Dolly and Anna out to another zoo to breed, then have them return in a few years when the zoo wasn't selling pencils out of tin cups to get by.

Losing the elephants is a big deal, of course, even though the zoo people were spinning this one better than Rumsfeld spinning Iraq.

But the fact is, elephants are a huge attraction at most zoos. Going to a zoo and not seeing elephants is like going to the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa. It's got to take a little something out of the trip.

Anyway, I got to the zoo around 10:30, just as the fog was lifting, and things were real slow.

Actually, every time I visit the zoo these days, things are slow. But this time, they were even slower than usual, seeing as how I was the only paying customer in sight.

The guy in the ticket booth was reading a book and yawning. The woman running the gift shop stood in the doorway and yawned. The guy overseeing the turnstile sat on a folding chair and yawned.

Seeing all these people yawning, I started to yawn myself.

"Why don't I get us all some coffee?" I said. "Or better yet, let's all get in a circle and do some jumping jacks, get the blood pumping."

But no one seemed interested in coffee or exercise, so I unfolded my official Baltimore Zoo map and set off for the Africa exhibits, where the elephants were.

Once inside, I could see there were a few school groups walking around, and a few people who looked like tourists, but otherwise I pretty much had the place to myself.

Walking along, it was sad to see how run-down the zoo is these days. There was paint peeling everywhere and cement crumbling and everything looked worn and dilapidated.

Even the animals looked kind of bored, like they all wanted to yawn, if they only could.

By the way, it turns out the elephants aren't the only big animals being outsourced at the zoo. Apparently, Peaches got the ax, too.

"In anticipation of new zoo construction," read a sign, "our female Nile hippopotamus, Peaches, has moved to the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina, where she is living outdoors with their male hippo, Montgomery."

Tell me there isn't some kind of sex discrimination suit there just waiting for a sharp lawyer.

First Peaches gets the tap on the shoulder. Then Dolly and Anna get called into the office and told their services are no longer needed.

And what kind of shabby treatment is that for Peaches? She gets transferred without even a warning. Then they force her to live with some guy she doesn't even know?

Anyway, when I finally got to the elephant exhibit - which might as well have been in Africa, it was so far away - the only people there were a couple from New York, John and Mary Kate Tuohy.

Both had heard the big news about Dolly and Anna getting outplaced, and both were saddened by it, seeing as how they were big elephant fans.

"I'm very, very partial to elephants," Mary Kate Tuohy said. "They're very friendly. They travel in herds. And they take care of each other."

As I finished talking to them, a reporter and cameraman for a local TV station showed up, followed by a photographer for the Associated Press.

This meant that, counting me, there were now as many media members present as elephants and visitors combined.

So we all sort of just hung around and watched the elephants for a few minutes.

The thing about elephants is, they're incredibly majestic-looking, but they don't really put on a show for you.

The gibbons will swing from branch to branch and give you some cheap thrills when they fall, and the penguins will give you a few laughs with their waddle, and the warthogs root around like they're on amphetamines and crash into things.

But not elephants. Elephants are pretty laid back. Anna just stood there scratching her ears on a log post while Dolly draped her trunk over the fence and caught some rays.

Or maybe it was Anna catching the rays and Dolly doing the scratching.

Look, they're elephants, not my kids. I can't tell one from the other.

But I'll miss them. Peaches, too.

This economy, it's killing everyone.

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