Animal Encounter—Silver: A Mother’s Chase

by Stephanie Kriner

If one moment could portray how I viewed the world before becoming a mother, it was when an elephant chased my friends and me through the bush in South Africa.

I sat in the back of a roofless Land Rover with my two girlfriends as our driver parked a few feet from an elephant herd on a dirt road in the Manyeleti Game Reserve, a private reserve in the Limpopo Province of northern South Africa. The dry season was hanging on extra long, so the bush looked barren and bleached with dust that never seemed to stop settling – especially in the startling light of a newly risen sun. We were in our late 20s and wore new cargo pants from REI, knotted scrunchies in scraggly hair and cameras around our necks. Elephants played around us among spiked golden grasses and barren trees with arthritic fingers for limbs. This jungle was just the latest place I’d come to satiate a hunger for my restless nature – a yearning to both escape the tedium of my own life and to connect with other worlds.

The morning’s latest animal sighting satisfied at least some of that hunger, and I felt strangely at peace. The elephants – a herd of at least 50 babies and their mothers – added to my sense of happiness as they flopped their ears, jostled each other and pranced through the grass. In their play, they looked incredibly unimposing for such huge beasts. Our tracker, a local villager who sat on a chair connected to the hood of the Land Rover and pointed the way, told us that the largest elephant was the matriarch. The significance of this title didn’t strike me as this mother of all mothers was edging toward us. Soon she walked just a few feet away so that we could almost see into her brown eyes. I did not notice, but I imagine now that they must have been watching us nervously as she edged closer and closer.

A baby skipped around her four huge feet, never moving out of the shadow of his mother’s body. Without looking, she knew exactly where he stood, and as she took gentle, giant steps toward us, her ears wiggled wildly while her tail and trunk swung out of sync with one another. It was as if her limbs were on opposite pendulums, with different puppeteers operating her motions.

As we basked in the morning sun, the wiggling of her ears grew more rapid, and I assumed she was just curious when she took another, daring step closer to us. But the tracker said something in Afrikaans to our driver, prompting him to turn the keys. The engine’s click startled the silence, and that’s when the elephant’s body stiffened for flight. The Land Rover took off just in time. As the mother barreled toward us, her enormous ears seemed to stand happily erect and her trunk pointed to the sky. When she let out a shrill trump, she looked like she was pursuing a lover, not like she was charging an enemy. Her round wrinkled body tipped from one side to the next each time her huge feet crashed to the ground, and her pudgy knees and ankles did not seem to bend.

I did not notice how her baby looked when she left him behind to chase after us but now I wonder whether he was afraid. Did his tiny eyes stare after his mother with longing or fear? I would not have thought to look at the calf because I did not yet truly understand the bond of a child and its mother. Cartoon like, his mother ran, and I imagined that the ground shook with each step. Perhaps because this elephant looked so comical and non-threatening, I was oblivious to the danger, and, along with my girlfriends, I found the situation funny. Or maybe it was just the exhilaration of the speed that made us act like schoolgirls, as the bouncing of the Land Rover on the bumpy dirt road seemed to shake the giggles out of us. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that we could have been killed pretty easily (The Land Rover would not withstand the force of a collision with an African female elephant’s 7,000-plus pound body). Also, during that moment of excitement I did not once stop to think that a “mother” was chasing us. She was merely an elephant to me. I did not realize until later, when the ranger told us, that she was probably protecting her young calf.

I leaned over the side of the Land Rover and stuck out my camera for a picture and my friend Holly stood up to catch her on video. The matriarch was gaining on us but we kept on laughing because we still felt perfectly safe and secure. It was as if that moment made us realize just how happy we all felt to be on this adventure – feeling the kind of bliss a traveler reaches only when she believes that she has found a connection in her new surroundings. As strange as this now sounds to me, it was as if the elephant’s acknowledgement of us actually affirmed our need to feel like a part of this place. She was just a few feet from the Land Rover’s back bumper when the vehicle shifted into gear and sped away (something I realized only after watching the video while safe at home). Through the dust, I looked as she slowed to a stop and stood watching us. As we waited for what seemed like many minutes for her to turn around and return to the herd, I could say for sure that she was glaring. The adrenaline stopped soaring through my veins, and our laughter died down, but I failed to fully realize why the situation had never been that funny.

Now the mother of a toddler, I understand how disconnected I was to the world during that trip. To feel like a part of it, I sought outrageous adventures and finding them made me high. That elephant had been the source of my pleasure. Today, though, I find myself thinking about her in a new way – not only because I now see her mostly as a mother, a comrade, but also because the memory of that chase allows me to see my old self – the one that had no “mother” identity – in a new way.

Single and free to travel the world without fear for my life or anybody else’s, I assumed that the matriarch was merely charging us in response to a maternal instinct, something that I considered similar to ducking from a flying object or, perhaps even, breathing. It’s not that I was completely oblivious to how so-called eco-tourists like myself might actually cause more harm than good. After returning from that eventful morning’s safari ride, I talked to my friends about whether the ranger should have parked so closely to the elephant herd. We all suspected that he had made a rookie mistake; he asked us not to say anything about the incident to anybody back at the safari camp. I realized that these safaris did put South Africa’s wild animals under a lot of stress, and I felt guilty for contributing to it.

But I never felt guilty for laughing at the matriarch who pursued us. In spite of her and her little baby, I had experienced a thrill. I must admit that I not only laughed in response to a traveler’s high. I also laughed because I felt free and invincible and young, and it was exciting. I laughed because the world was before me and anything might happen. And when I returned home from that trip, I laughed some more as I told friends, family and colleagues about that chase. Each time I retold it, I could re-experience, at least vaguely, the rush of excitement. Now that I’m a mother, weighed down by a responsibility that constantly makes me question the risks I take, I know I’ll never again feel so completely unbound. And even as I mourn those days of unbridled freedom, I wonder – did she hear us laughing? Did she know we didn’t take her seriously?

After having my son, I began having flashes of memories about the mothers I’d met all over the world during the traveling days of my 20s – a mother from a mudslide-ravaged village in Venezuela whose young son cried with every rain; a mother of four children in Kosovo who lost her husband and oldest son to genocide and who fainted every time she tried to recount the story; and, even, that elephant. While the human mothers, many of whom I’d met while working as a writer for a humanitarian organization, caused me the most heartache, thoughts of that wild beast I’d met while on vacation brought on pangs of guilt. I wondered how much she and her young calf had suffered at my expense. Searching for some answers, I read up on the maternal instincts of elephants. I learned that elephants actually react with human-like emotions at the birth of a calf. When an elephant mother sees her baby for the first time, streams run from her eyes and she appears to be crying tears of joy. For the first year of its life, an elephant calf never strays out of touching distance of its mom. Even at 9-years-old, five to six years after weaning, a calf spends 50 percent of its time within five yards of its mom’s side.

When I was pregnant with my son, I wondered how I would react to seeing him for the first time. I wondered if I would cry at the first sight of him — whether I would fall in love with him instantly. My sister and brother, who had children before I did, said they did. The books said that some mothers don’t fall in love with their newborns right away. Instead, they gradually grow attached, as they get to know their babies. I guessed that I would experience the more gradual attachment. I doubted that I would cry.

When the nurse put my son on my stomach, he was craning his neck and wrinkling his forehead as if straining to return to the warm place from whence he came. He had blood smeared all over his splotched pink body, black fuzzy sideburns along his cheeks, a lopsided head and swollen lips. As he began to scream and turn red in distress, he looked like an alien to me. While I cradled him to my chest, I looked at my husband, and his eyes were moist with tears. I did not feel like crying. I felt like I was still shaking off the trance I’d willed myself into to deal with the pain and commotion of a rapid childbirth. On my back and unable to move, I could not even get a good look at the baby on my stomach. A contraction was still pushing the placenta from me, and the doctor was still staring into my crotch. Soon she would be sewing me up, and my son would be whisked to the other side of the room, where the nurse and my husband would get to inspect him while I strained to watch. There was no opportunity for me to feel love at first sight.

But that night after my husband and I had settled into our room, the nurse placed my son on my stomach again – hoping to raise his temperature. This time as I studied him, I noticed his frail vulnerability: His arms and legs were as slender as a few of my fingers; the outline of pencil-thin vertebra poked through his back; and his head was no bigger than a softball. His mouth opened like a baby bird’s as I tried to nurse him but he lay there limply, unable to find my nipple on his own.

My baby still looked so strange to me – not like the one I had imagined in my belly. That one had a big round baldhead and rolls of fat for legs and arms. But my son soon convinced me of his complete perfection. We stared at each other and his oval-shaped baby blue eyes peered wisely into mine, as if they knew what I was thinking. In response to my worries, they said, “I’ve known you all along and you will take good care of me.” His tiny body relaxed, and I knew that he was no longer afraid or uncomfortable with his new surroundings. Like the baby elephant prancing carelessly at his mother’s huge feet, my son felt safe and secure in my arms. That’s when I began to feel I was falling in love. I watched him fall asleep and already couldn’t imagine life without him.

When the nurse returned to check his temperature again, I was actually giddy. A surge of energy was making my stomach do flip flops, and my head was spinning with excitement. I could not believe 30 minutes had passed or that it was now nearly 4 in the morning. I did not let her take my son. I had an overwhelming desire to keep my new baby with me. Now high on love, I felt like I would never be able to fall asleep, and I didn’t. All night, as my husband slept on the pullout couch next to us, I watched my son and held him tight. I examined his fingers and toes, kissed his soft head, sniffed his fresh aroma and stroked his warm cheeks. Never had I felt such an instantaneous, overwhelming love.

Also, never had I felt such an urge to nurture and protect. While nothing can compare to the realization that I could love somebody this deeply, this was not the only change that occurred in me on that night. The other change came from a realization that another human being now depended on me; like that matriarch I had met in my 20s, I would do anything and everything to protect him and keep him safe. My days of running from elephants were over because I would take my travels (once I had a chance to return to them again) more seriously from now on. I knew that I could never again feel as invincible and free as I did when I wasn’t a mother. I had become the pursuer, ready to chase away any dangers that would inevitably approach my son. But, for once, I felt fulfilled. A new kind of adventure had only just begun that night. I still had so much more to learn about the world, and my son, with the wise eyes, would teach me.

Since that night, I have come to understand what prompted that mother elephant to chase us. I do not believe it was pure instinct. At the time, I was blind to the emotions in her eyes as I watched her walking beside her calf – ignorant to her growing anxieties. Looking at photographs of her, I now see that she was looking right at the camera before the chase, and I’m pretty sure that her gentle eyes were pleading, as if to ask us to leave. Through the eyes of a mother looking into the eyes of another mother, I now know her fear. I now understand why she risked her life to chase a speeding vehicle driven by an armed ranger.

For that reason, I want to apologize to and thank that matriarch, whose title I now respect. I am sorry for laughing at her, for causing her anxiety, and for reminding her that she cannot always protect her baby. But I also thank her — first for making me feel as if life has no bounds; and then for teaching me, years later, that all mothers – both human and animal mothers — share this strange mix of love and fear. Although I may never feel the ecstasy of speeding through the bush on a South African morning again, I now have a deeper understanding of the world. I now feel connected to mothers all over the globe – even those I’ve never met — in a way my travels could never quite fulfill. I have learned that a mother’s love can be found anywhere, even in the wild. And I understand how this love can drive a mother to take huge risks, much bigger than those risks I took during the traveling days of my 20s.

I recently remembered something about the aftermath of our elephant encounter. As we finally pulled away from the herd of elephants, the matriarch walked toward her son. Before she could get to him, he pointed his miniature trunk in the air and let out a miniature trump. At the time, I interpreted it as a stern but cute message to us that we had better leave. Today, I hear a different message in that high-pitched call – one of a rambunctious toddler reminding his mother that he was learning to take care of himself. This new trump pierces through my memories of carefree traveling bliss with a painful poignancy, telling me that I will not always be able to cast a protective shadow over my son either. Reminding me that I must learn to give him what I once craved so insatiably – the courage to seek outrageous adventures, the confidence to laugh uncontrollably (even in the face of danger), and the freedom to believe life has no bounds.

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