Daphne Feeding Shmetty

It was the smallest elephant I had ever seen, covered still in the soft fuzz of elephant infancy, with a tiny trunk tinged with pink, and toenails of pale yellow that looked brand new.  It tottered up to us on wobbly legs, waggling its trunk around as though it had no idea what to do with it, searching for something to suck; too young even to know the meaning of fear.  And the driver explained that it had come from far off Marsabit, having fallen down a disused well, and had been brought to us because they thought we knew how to cope, and they didn't.  My heart sank.  There was absolutely no doubt that this baby was far too young to be handed over to Eleanor.  It would need feeding with milk alone, and as such, my headache.

The garden orphans had all gathered around, for the arrival of any newcomer inevitably caused great interest.  Bunty the young female impala I had raised looked decidedly disapproving, while Baby the eland and Jimmy the kudu were curious and the Honks, our peacocks, and the guinea fowl chattered excitedly stretching out their necks to stare.

I knew what work a very small elephant entailed and I dreaded being confronted with another – three hourly feeds day and night, constant attention and companionship, the endless job of cleaning up, which was bad enough with just an ordinary baby, and a lot worse with an elephant. Then, despite everything, the heartache of seeing it decline daily before one's very eyes, because the diet was not suitable, ending up in the little graveyard beyond the lily pond, one other added to a long line of similar failures.  However, I also knew that one couldn't pick and choose one's orphans, and that I had to do my best, for only by trial and error would a suitable formula emerge, and if it did, many other baby elephants who found themselves in a similar predicament would be saved.

Daphne Sheldrick and ShmettyAs the newcomer was steered towards the orphan stables, trailed by a retinue of furred and feathered spectators, I steeled myself for the weeks ahead, grappling with the problem of how to begin on this occasion.  Feeding an elephant is not easy at the best of times, for one has to mix gallons, not pints, and the bottle and teat had to be elephantine as well.  Gloomily I stared at the rows of different sized teats, assorted bottles, tins, and medicines that comprised the orphans' paraphernalia.  I was still staring when David came to join me.  Together we pored once again over the thick office file headed "Orphans", which contained an assortment of bright ideas from zoos and experts all over the world on how to simulate elephant's milk.  Some recommended mashed bananas, others rice, yet others skimmed milk with butter added, or maize meal.  But amongst them all there had not been a single success story, where an elephant under the height of three feet had survived.  Apparently, the difficulty lay in an inability to assimilate the fat of the cows' milk from which most powdered milks are made, for the fat of elephants' milk is special, and different to that of any other animal.  That night we fed the little elephant only water and glucose, and went to bed still grappling with the problem.  All was peaceful and quiet, with only the soft rustling of the palms and the monotonous call of a Scops owl to break the stillness of the night.  But it was not long before a shrill trumpet from the nursery stables reminded me sharply of my new responsibilities, and the fact that my "headache" needed some nourishment.

The next few weeks were a nightmare, struggling with different milk concoctions, mixing, measuring, sterilizing, cleaning and changing the formula time and again.  Meanwhile the little elephant declined, gradually developing that dreaded skeletal look – the sunken eye sockets and pronounced cheekbones that heralded the end.  There were tears of despair and frustration, for I knew that time was running out, and unless I could find the answer soon, the little elephant would join the others in the graveyard.  I wanted this little elephant to live so badly, because she herself was putting up such a valiant struggle and, of course, we had become very fond of her in the short time that she had been with us.  One cannot help becoming fond of a baby elephant, for they are intelligent and not unlike a human toddler in that they can be obedient, gentle, loveable and very good, or mischievous, stubborn, and naughty, depending on the mood of the moment.

We deliberately avoided naming any very tiny elephant calves that came to us, simply because we suspected that they would not be with us long, and if they were nameless, the loss seemed less painful.  But on one of the afternoon walks with the calf we encountered some German tourists, who were treated to an impressive display of elephant aggression in miniature.  Ears which were still pink and soft stood out like round plates from a tiny face, and the little elephant gave a mock charge, ending with a squeaky trumpet, as she backed away looking down her trunk just as the old bull had done at the Red Waterhole.  Everyone laughted"Schmetterling, Schmetterling!" they cried, and at this the mirth increased.  What's Schmetterling?" asked my daughter Angela with a frown.

"I expect it means elephant". I suggested, but then a guttural voice from inside the bus offered enlightenment.

"No, no," it said, "It iz ze butterfly!" and standing there with tiny ears outspread, the baby elephant did indeed look rather like a butterfly!  From that moment on she was nicknamed Schmetterling or Shmetty for short.

And then, one day, she was too weak even to get to her feet, although she greeted me with the usual rumble, which tugged at my heartstrings.  I again stared at the rows of tins in my store.  I had tried them all, and then suddenly one on the shelf caught my eye, which had been given to me some weeks before.  My interest rose when I saw that it contained coconut oil added to a fat-free base, for I remembered once being told that coconut oil was probably the nearest substitute for the fat of elephant's milk.  This last one I would try, and suddenly I felt a good deal happier, at least all was not lost yet.

It worked.  My joy knew no bounds.  Finally we had unlocked the mystery of how to bottle-rear a baby elephant.  As the days past, Shmetty began to lose her former gaunt appearance, and her skin became more supple and soft, which is the surest means of gauging the health of an animal like an elephant.  Then, one day, she began to play, charging Bunty and Baby, scattering the Honks and guinea fowl in all directions, and upsetting poor Jimmy by grabbing him by a back leg.  We were delighted.  Soon everyone was involved in the chasing game that Shmetty had instigated, and whereas Bunty didn't approve at all, and took herself and her sons off into the car park, Baby, who was a boisterous animal, certainly did, and was soon in the thick of everything: bucking and kicking and leaping over the terraces with graceful ease, suddenly leaving a very puzzled little Shmetty with nothing to chase! Then Baby speared the flower basket with one horn, and the apparition of an eland charging round the garden with a flower basket on its head resulted in total confusion.  Honk and his wives, as well as all the guinea fowl set up their loud alarm call: Bunty made her snorting, lion noise, and her sons fled back to the bachelor herd.  Even the warthogs, which had been very much involved, lost their nerve and shot out of the garden with their tails in the air, nearly colliding with David on his way up from the workshop, who was also wondering what on earth could have happened to reduce the garden to this state of turmoil.  It was a very happy day, and when David saw Shmetty, he walked up to me and kissed me.  "Well done"  he said.  "I do believe you've done it this time." And in this moment all the effort of the last few weeks was made worthwhile.  Could it be that I had hit on a means of rearing a very small elephant at last?  Could it be that this time I had found the key to unlock the secret that had eluded me for nearly twenty years?  I hardly dared hope, but now, for the first time, the hope was very much alive.

The mudwallow that David made for Shmetty provided some of the happiest moments of her daily routine.  David made it specially for her: a miniature replica of the Red Waterhole, with the right sort of red plastering mud, and just the right depth.  Immersed in its glutinous depths, she was happy to play for hours, the only drawback being that she expected others to join in as well.

Three little ostrich chicks recently brought in by a tourist bus were the main victims, and were ruthlessly hauled in with her whenever they came within trunk range.  They were her constant playmates, providing the companionship so vital for a baby elephant, for they had immediately attached themselves to her as a mother figure to be followed: albeit a rather rough one at times, for in her more playful moments they were expected to take part in chasing games and had to put up with being dragged around the orchard by the neck whenever she managed to catch one.  However, the ostriches didn't seem to mind this rough treatment, as long as they had something larger than themselves to follow, and whenever Shmetty was, so were they – squatting patiently beside her as she slept, or racing around, pirouetting in circles with their ridiculously tiny wings outspread, when she played – they were the barometer that reflected her changing moods.

She was a demanding baby, so much so that David had to provide an "elephant – sitter" Ranger, because he said he didn't want a wife that was always worn out!  Attaching Shmetty to the elephant-sitter, however, entailed careful planning, for she hated to be parted from me even for a moment.  Only by throwing my apron over her hear, could I escape, and by the time she had disentangled herself, and provided I had vanished, she was content to remain with the elephant-sitter so long as he then donned the apron which provided tangible contact during my absences.  However, one round ear was constantly listening for the gate, and at the telltale creak, she would come tearing over, trumpeting with joy and excitement and nearly bowling me over on impact.

There were days when Shmetty was not quite herself, and needed a tablet for a tummy ache.  This usually entailed the combined efforts of David, the elephant-sitter and me to restrain her while I pushed the tablet as far as possible down her throat, for she hated taking medicine, just like most of us, After this we would have to try and comfort her.  Generally she bustled off to the kitchen and stood dejectedly with her head in the box that housed the gas cylinder, seeking solace from the feeling of being underneath something, for a baby elephant spends a lot of its early life tucked beneath its mother, and only the gas box seemed to give her this particular comfort and feeling of security when she was upset.  Teatime was a ritual at home, for not only did the rattle of the cups indicate that the afternoon walk was imminent, but it also heralded the advent of the special teatime biscuits I always served.  Most of our orphans thought these biscuits were the very best thing they had every tasted, particularly Jimmy and Baby, who could never have enough of them. Gazing over the verandah ledge with drooling mouths and a look of such heartrending appeal in their enormous liquid eyes, pleading with every fiber of their being, they were impossible to resist.  Feeding biscuits to Jimmy and Baby was rather like posting letters.  Mr. Honk and his family expected some as well, and so did the warthogs whenever they happened to be in residence at the time.  Shmetty felt deprived, too, unless she had one, although she had no idea what to do with it, and waved it around, popping it in and out of her mouth, or even in and out of her ear, sucking it up in her trunk until it disintegrated and finally got blown out in an elephant-sized sneeze that made everyone jump.  Only Bunty and her sons had not exotic tastes, and at teatime they would repair to the car Park, because they didn't like being involved with Shmetty's games.  Whereas the ostriches kept her occupied most of the time, fortunately for them, Shmetty liked a change by the end of day.  She would play with the broom, or the bucket, or the hose, or anything that could be picked up and thrown down.

One thing was forbidden, and that was coming into the house, not only because you can't very well have elephants in your house, but also because I was very proud of the polished red floors that gleamed like glass.  Shmetty knew very well that the house was out of bounds, but this made it all the more tempting and enticing, and some afternoons, when she was in one of her cussed moods, which happened quite often, she would became more and more determined to come in the more I tried to keep her out.  If I turned my back, even for a moment, she would rush up the stairs and confront me with a challenging look on her face.  When she was forcibly evicted, the squeals and roars of rage were deafening.  Off to the gas box she would go to sulk, until the thought of Baby and Jimmy monopolizing all the biscuits brought her back.  Then, slowly and silently, a tiny face with outspread ears would peep around the corner of the house, and listen and watch just to make sure that she didn't miss the afternoon walk.

The sandpit by the office was almost as special as the little waterhole, and so the walk always had to be routed this way.  There Shmetty would play in the sand just like any ordinary child, climbing up to the top, and sliding down on her bottom until her eyes, ears and truck were full of sand, and it was time to press on.  We had to arrange matters so that we were back just before six o'clock, because we couldn't risk any noisy protests as Eleanor was coming up the hill.  In any case Shmetty didn't like her bottle to be late.

Daphne Sheldrick and ShmettyGradually the days became months, and our little elephant was still alive.  Every month, out would come the tape measure and every month she was half an inch closer to three feet.  Soon I would be able to hand over responsibility to Eleanor, who would introduce her to a diet of greenery and teach her the ways of elephants.  By now, we were almost certain that Shmetty would survive and grow up under Eleanor's watchful eye, to romp and play in the real Red Waterhole along with the others, and wander in the wilderness among her own kind, and finally, perhaps even to have a baby of her own.

A very special feeling flooded over me when I contemplated my orphans: the sort of feeling I knew David must have experienced a hundredfold when he contemplated his Park: a feeling of great achievement: a warm flow of pride: of deep satisfaction and contentment: a feeling of identity almost even of creation, for by being instrumental in giving life to one animal, so may others had a chance to live.  I got this special feeling especially when I thought about Bunty and her family, for instance, or the fifty-eight buffalo that now roamed the Nairobi National Park, all of whom had sprung from my few buffalo orphans.  It was, I suppose, a feeling of worthwhile contribution and success, of having led a life that was constructive rather than destructive for only creativity brings true peace to one's soul: so easy to destroy: so difficult to create, but also so much more fulfilling in every way.  One last triumph I longed for, and that was to be able to look with pride on an animal like an elephant, born of a mother I had nurtured from the start, and think, deep inside my heart, "But for me…."

The sunsets of Tsavo are always beautiful – breathtakingly beautiful – as though to focus attention momentarily on the sky, and remind us where all life begins.  I was reminded of many things at the close of every day as the sun sank.  Firstly of the beauty that surrounded us and of the miracle of creation: of the blissful happiness of our closely knit human family: the companionship and devotion of our animal family.  Paler tones in the east reminded me that although all things fade, continuity was assured; just as another equally glorious sunrise would paint the sky in the morning.

I thought about life and what went into it: tragedies as well as triumphs, sorrows as well as joys: even dying was very much part of living – the end of a beginning rather that an end at all.  And, I thought about my many orphans, those present and those past, and about the contribution they had made to my life, not only in the hours of enjoyment they had provided, but also in a better understanding of life; of the wilderness and its creatures, teaching me many things I could otherwise never have understood, and enabling me to know the fulfillment which I have described.

Sometimes, I wondered what the future held, for them and for us as well, but one thing I knew, no matter what the future unfurled, I would always be able to look back on the past, pick any story from the pages of my life and begin "Once upon a Time."

Taken from Dr. Daphne Sheldrick's book My Four-Footed Family

No longer in print


It was 1974 and Daphne's daughter, Jill was to be married in Nairobi.   Kenya weddings are always grand social affairs, when all family and friends from far-flung places gather for such a happy occasion.   Daphne and her mother were needed in Nairobi, for the Reception would be held at Daphne's younger sister's residence.   Another "surrogate" mother was tutored to care for Shmetty, and Daphne left with a heavy heart, and a peculiar feeling of unease.   She was only away a week, but when she returned, "Shmetty" had apparently sunk into such deep depression that she was skeletal and desperately ill.   She died that night, her head cradled in Daphne's lap. Her closing eyes washed with Daphne's tears.

Daphne had discovered the formula suitable to raise an infant African elephant, but she had made some cardinal mistakes – "Shmetty" had become too close to just one person, and not a "family" – that taught her the lesson about the need for a team of Keepers who would rotate and represent the little elephant's family.   The adverse affect of oral antibiotics was another lesson, pointing the way to homeopathic remedies.   However, most  importantly, it was Aisha alias "Shmetty"  that unlocked the many very human traits of the elephant psyche.

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