Never one to pass up a conversation about adorable animals, I was drawn into a couple different ones at the office over the last few days. Just today, chatting over the tops of our cubicles like we often do, a couple of us were talking about shipping pets. In the Foreign Service, this is a major topic that comes up time and time again- how to get a pet (usually a dog or a cat, but I’ve seen serious discussions about birds, rodents, turtles, etc…) from post A to post B. Never a cheap proposition, flying a pet around the world adds up quickly, with thousands of dollars (each move!) going to meet veterinarian requirements, buy tickets, and endure the quarantine process. For some though, a pet is synonymous with family and no expense is too great to have them accompany tour after tour after tour.
In this rambling tête-à-tête about shipping between posts, I learned that the Frankfurt airport is apparently the Shangri-La of airports for travelling pets. In addition to nice rest facilities for the critters, and staff who are attentive and actually seem to care (apparently this is not a given), the airport has a top-notch veterinarian on call at all times.
Wondering why an airport would put so much effort into animal transportation had me a bit baffled, until a colleague mentioned that the airport is used as a main hub for circus animal movements in Europe. Of course, this sent my brain down a widly different path, as the thought of sending circus animals by plane had not really ever occurred to me. Apparently, my childhood selection of picture books, plastic toys, and Disney movies has me eternally convinced at all circus animals travel by train- you know, the one with the red engine, the elephant with his trunk sticking out of the side of a car, the car with the giraffe head periscoping out of the top of his roof, and brightly painted advertisements up and down its length. This is how circus has moved, does move, and will always move. Right?
Welcome to the 21st century, Michelle! Circuses are fancy and travel by air. Sadly, this just doesn’t create the same nostalgic mental image as the train congers up. There are no lions roaring in the belly of the plane, no head/trunk holes in the fuselage for various critter pieces parts, although maybe if it were a private plane it could be brightly painted in primary colors.
Of course, with my recent trip to Johannesburg, the talk of elephants and lions smoothly slid into one about trips to various animal parks in South Africa. Unfortunately, I was not able to get out of town to do full-on safari trip, but I did squeeze in half-day trips, one to an elephant halfway house and the other to a lion park.
Yes, I said elephant halfway house.
Just a few hours outside of Johannesburg is an elephant park that houses a mere handful of pachyderms at a time- those who are awaiting placement in new homes. These giants come from a variety of places: one from a zoo that had closed down, one from a bigger park that was having social issues within its herds, and a couple from private complexes that could no longer house them. The day I went to the park, I was unable to meet the oldest member of the transient crew, as he had apparently “gotten up on the left side of the bed” and was in no mood for visitors. The keepers said the transition from the zoo has not been an easy one and he often opts of our socialization.
But, even if Old Man was grumpy that day, I still got to meet and spend the morning with some awesome creatures. The park is small and has a rolling population, but they have a great visitor program. Paired with an attached monkey park (which I opted out of!), elephant visitors still have to make their way through a free-range monkey enclosure to reach the sanctuary of the big guys. (There were monkeys out and about, but not in the terrifying numbers that still haunt my dreams after a trip to Monkey Forest in Bali. At no point was I concerned for my well-being or pondered the possible full ramifications of a broken-skin monkey bite.)
The tour started with a time to feed two of the elephants, mostly just a mash of pellets that they sucked into their trunks like powerful wet/dry vacuums. Our group was mostly adults and some folks were satisfied after dropping a handful or two into a trunk, so with a half-full bucket of pellets left, I went ahead and took a few extra turns at snack time. (The two kids our group were terrified of the elephants and hid behind their parents, regardless of the amount of coaxing by those they trusted. The adults didn’t seem overly interested, and the way I saw it, those enormous mammals ended some serious calories to survive the day, so really, I was the hero of the morning, at least in the long-lashed eyes of my new friends.)
Feeding time was followed by a really nice informational session in an outdoor classroom. We all plopped ourselves down on wooden benches and learned about the differences between Asian and African elephants (the usual, size, ears, toes, etc.), but also some really cool facts about how elephant skulls help cool their brains and about their five sets of ever larger teeth. Coming from someone who signs up for every imaginable animal outing possible when I travel, I was really impressed with the mini-biology lesson I got from the ranger and definitely came away from the day not only having interacted with elephants, but with a bit more critter data in my cranium.
The highlight of the morning was getting up close and personal (up close and pachydermal?) with the stars of the show. Having no fear of the enormous animal, I walked right up to him and his trainer, full of questions about his age, history, future, etc. The trainer looked at me and said, “Have you spent time with elephants before?” I could only laugh and reply in the affirmative, as a detailed list of my many animal visits wasn’t on the morning agenda. After some hugs and kisses, it was time to bid adieu to our new friends and their wonderful keepers. (These men obviously loved their charges and took amazing care of them. It was really impressive to see the relationships that had been formed between man and animal and to hear of how hard the reserve works to send their animals away from the halfway house to safe and healthy forever homes.)
Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in. I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!