While this memoir, “An Elephant in My Kitchen: What the Herd Taught Me About Love, Courage and Survival” is, in a way, a sequel to “The Elephant Whisperer,” it’s a different story with a different writer. Françoise Malby-Anthony is a fabulous narrator, and her story brings readers to tears at times, but her strength and her determination shine through, as do her compassion and her inner goodness.
Both books are about Thula Thula, the game reserve that Françoise and her late husband, Lawrence, built together. He was the animal guy, and she took care of the lodges, booking guests and running the marketing. He was out in the field, solving elephant problems and issues with poachers, while she dealt with bad Tripadvisor reviews.
So when Lawrence died while on a business trip, Françoise was bereft. She didn’t know how to continue without him, but at the same time she wasn’t going to allow their animals to be homeless or left in the care of someone who might not love them as much as she and Lawrence had. So she soldiered on, and she not only kept as many of their elephants safe as she could, she took in abandoned and injured baby rhinos and even a hippo.
She and her team made mistakes, and some of the stories about rhinos killed by poachers are horrifying and heartrending, but her successes will have readers cheering her on.
One story that shows the depth of her compassion is when someone called them about a young female elephant that was going to be auctioned off. She said, “What caught my attention was that this young elephant was alone. I mean, how is that even possible? Where was her herd?” And then this elephant champion learned that the twelve-year-old elephant had been alone for a year. A twelve-year-old elephant is like a twelve-year-old child, and the group of orphans she had lived with were abandoned by the owner, either sold or shot (probably in a paid-for hunt). They began to investigate saving this elephant, only to find out that the owner had already sold her. “Some American hunter has paid big money for her. More than the original asking price.” The hunt had been scheduled. She continued, “Apparently he’s in a wheelchair, so I suppose a frightened young elephant without a herd to protect her is the only way he’s going to get his trophy.”
Françoise reflects on that reality bitterly. Many, many American animal lovers are sick at heart that the current American administration has allowed the importation of animal trophies from Africa. Under previous administrations, this had been outlawed. She writes, “Here was a young elephant that had lost her family, not once, but twice, had been shirted from one reserve to the next, and worst of all, condemned to a solitary miserable life, and now her beautiful face was going to end up above some American’s fireplace.” (Makes me ashamed to be an American.)
Luckily, the reserve’s hunting permit expired, and the reserve’s attempt to renew it was denied. A friend helped raise the money for the purchase (“blood money”) and transport, but a permit was denied. Local officials were worried that she would be aggressive and trouble. Lawrence was determined to save this youngster, and he argued and promised and assured, and they got their permit. When the elephant arrived at Thula Thula, she was terrified, and her hatred of humans was apparent. Françoise said they’d have to be patient with her. “She’s our enfant terrible,” she said, and the elephant became known as ET. Her pain and grief were palpable. But they thought that their elephant matriarch, Nana, who had been through a hell of her own, would be able to help. They later learned that the youngster had no voice because after she’d lost her companions at the other reserve, she had screamed and shrieked in fear. That permanently damaged her vocal cords, so she can’t make elephant trumpeting sounds.
And that’s one of the things that will be apparent to readers — elephants have complex emotions and impressive intelligence. To allow them to be killed in paid hunts, poached for ivory, slaughtered because they want to continue to roam lands that they have for generations is cruel and short-sighted. We need these gentle giants to roam the African plains — or at least the plains and land in the sanctuaries there. And those sanctuaries need help to keep poachers away from their rhinos and their elephants. The world needs to step up.
The book is an engaging read, and quickly Françoise becomes almost a friend, sharing her experiences and passions for the wildlife of South Africa. The details, the dialogue, the stories are all told with feeling and passion. It’s a fabulous read.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Thomas Dunne Books, the publisher, for review purposes.