Everyone knows how painful it is to experience the loss of a loved one, especially one we raised, nurtured and protected.
Last month Phil and Francine Schacht faced a terrible loss. Dondi, the elephant they raised from infancy, died of tuberculosis. When I heard the news, my heart went out to Phil and Francine. I thought of Tarra because the two were the same age. And I immediately flashed back to the time that Tarra and I met Dondi in Arkansas.
Tarra and I were driving cross-country from Quebec, Canada, to our home in Ojai, California. It was the end of a long circus season and we were anxious to get home. As was our practice, late in the evening we found a rural campground to spend the night.
These campgrounds were perfect because at this time of year they were empty of other travelers and usually backed up to a wildness area, a perfect playground for Tarra and her dogs. Campground services seemed to be tailor made for a traveling elephant: a private parking space with a personal dumpster and water faucet plus bathroom, shower and phone for her caregivers.
On this mid-fall evening driving through Arkansas, I spied a campground sign and followed the dark country road to the entrance. In front of me lay a vast pasture with a large wooden barn nestled way in the back of the property. The place was completely empty. I pulled Tarra’s rig into the prime space off the main road, adjacent to a large pond, between a few midsize shade trees.
As usual, Tarra was excited to exit her trailer. With Ace and Tasha, our constant canine companions, Tarra and I took off towards the woods. It was always part of the fun to remind Tarra to contain her excitement until we were under the cover of the woods. Her squeals and boisterous trumpets had been known to cause alarm in areas unaccustomed to pachyderm visitors. Allowing Tarra the freedom to play with full abandon is what enabled us to deal with circus life. In the woods Tarra no longer had to curb her vocalizations. Admittedly a few trumpets and series of dog-like barks echoed from deep in the woods. That night she played until spent, which took close to 45 minutes and left many young trees wondering what had just blown through.
In the morning, Tarra wasted no time plunging into her personal pond for her morning bath. The amenities at this campground were excellent. When I saw a man approaching I assumed he was the campground owner. So I braced myself for the reprimand I was about to receive. Boy — was I ever surprised. With a firm grip, the stocky man shook my hand and introduced himself as Phil Schacht, “owner of Dondi the elephant”.
Dondi, an Asian elephant of Tarra’s age, emerged from the wooden barn at the far end of the campground. Who would have guessed that our travels would bring us to her doorstep? Phil and his wife Francine ran the campground and lived there with Dondi when not on the road traveling with the circus.
What transpired a few minutes later forged an unforgettable bond between elephant guardians and newly acquainted elephants. We invited both elephants to “go see” the other. Like the slow motion commercial where two lovers gracefully run across an open filed into each other’s arms, Tarra and Dondi sprinted several hundred yards towards each other. They had never met before but they did not hesitate for a moment to engage in full-on pachyderm play.
As their guardians stood by, beaming with pride at their foster children, these two adolescent elephants played like litter mates. Perfectly matched, they had no fear of each other, nor desire to dominate or be submissive. They rubbed their big bodies up against the other, wiggled and gently pushed, entwined trunks, rolled around on the ground together like pigs in mud, squeaked, squealed and trumpeted in delight. Dondi would freeze and then race over to Phil, vocalizing madly. Tarra would imitate, hovering her trunk centimeters from my nose, barking incessantly. Dondi lovingly slobbered all over Phil with her trunk and tongue and quickly dashed back to Tarra. They were a whirlwind of pure joy. These two played and played and played, until finally their energy was spent and they decided that grazing was the next activity of the day.
This experience will be forever etched in my heart. Tarra and Dondi never met again, something I had always hoped for. But perhaps such magic is not repeated. Dondi will be sincerely missed.