Congo was an elephant, and Pax was a good dog. Congo had had many dogs over her long and stifled life, but Pax was one of her favorites: he would clamber up her offered leg to the very top of her head, and then scratch his claws up and down the thick skin of her skull; it felt so good that Congo would let out a trumpet BAH-RAAAAAPPP in happiness, and then she would curl her trunk up over her head and poke it around until she felt Pax. The dog would wriggle atop her head as she tickled him.
Sometimes she remembered her mother. In the summers, she remembered her mother. Where she knew her mother, it was hot. The place she lived in now was cooler than that, except in the summer, so in the summer she thought about her mother. Her aunts, too, and also the men with their guns. The next bit is a blur, and then she was in Harper Zoo and named Congo, which was simply wrong. There are elephants in the Congo basin, but they are forest elephants that rarely reach eight feet, and Congo was a bush elephant a dozen feet to the shoulder. Bush elephants don’t live anywhere near the Congo, but that was where Harper T. Harper, who paid for her, made his money and so that’s what she was called. Africa is Africa, Harper liked to say.
Zoo needs an elephant like a bookstore needs a cat, and so Harper Zoo got an elephant. Rhino was nice, and you should have some hippos. Alligators or crocodiles–didn’t matter which–and a big cat or two, but a zoo needs an elephant.
The keepers called it an enclosure, but it was a cage. By ratio, it was the size of a one-bedroom apartment, and lots of people live in those, but they were allowed to leave if they wanted. Congo could have killed any one of them in seconds, easily, but she didn’t. She hated them in principle, but they were individually kind. She thought her keepers were a credit to their species. The ground in her enclosure was concrete at first, and no animal is evolved to walk on concrete. Fucked up her feet, hips. In the 60’s, she was moved to her present home, and there is grass and dirt. The damage is done, and she walks gingerly and everything hurts when it rains.
She got her first dog, too. The 60’s were wild, man: men were burning their draft cards, and women were burning their bras, and elephants were getting dogs. The zookeepers were going through the same changes as the rest of the country–the white, middle-class, educated part of it–was going through, and they would stay in the zoo overnight eating acid and trying to communicate with anteaters.
“I’m talking to him, man.”
“What does he say?”
“He says, ‘Feed me some fucking ants.'”
“No. He’s obsessed.”
And the animals’ rights were for the first time discussed at Harper Zoo. The consensus arrived at was that, after years of close observation, 90% of animals are compete morons who don’t mind captivity as long as they’re being fed and taken care of. Giant tortoise? Giant tortoise had no idea it was even in a zoo. Yak? Yak stands there and chews. But the other ten percent, well, that was a problem if you’re even the slightest bit empathetic.
Couldn’t send Congo home. She didn’t even know how to be an elephant anymore, she didn’t speak elephant anymore other than grunts and groans and rumbles. Besides, she was on the tee-shirts.
They knew how smart she was, though. Even without the acid. Something in the eyes, those poky black eyes hidden in folds of gray skin, and the way she held a grudge. Pissed her off? She’d BAP her trunk against your shoulder like a bully’s finger for a few weeks until you brought her a present. Congo liked cantaloupe. Every animal in the zoo had a personality, and some didn’t like people and some did, but being angry with a specific person for a quantifiable reason is a sign of intelligence.
So the zookeepers relocated the hyenas that were next door to her and knocked down the wall, gave her more space. Grass instead of concrete. Congo got a little pond.
And a dog. A blue-tinged mutt called Shep that wasn’t even three months old. Floppy little guy that fell over as much as he ran, with pointed ears and a thin tail. One of the keepers had read an article in Life magazine about an elephant that befriended a dog, and so she went to the pound and got a mutt and brought it to the zoo. She was not sure Congo would not stamp the animal into a paste, but the elephant gently poked and examined the puppy with her trunk. The zookeeper left Shep with Congo, and by the next morning they were best friends for life.
Elephants live longer than dogs. When Shep died a decade later, Congo blasted a roar NAWHOOOOO into the sky and would not eat for three days, which is a very long time for an elephant. She would not allow her keepers in her enclosure until one of them arrived with Bailey, who was a reddish mutt with a curly coat and long muzzle. Congo felt guilty about having a new dog. Scientists try to avoid anthropomorphizing animals, and they would say that elephants are capable of guilt like humans understand it, but scientists gave us the atom bomb. They get things wrong all the time. Congo felt guilty about having a new dog, but Bailey was a feisty little guy and he bounced around and wanted to play, and Congo liked having a dog.
Bailey went the way of Shep, eventually, and Congo mourned again. She would not let the keepers–an entirely new generation of them since she had been given her first dog–near the body for hours. Congo stood over the dog and stroked his fur again and again. There was a eulogy, too, but subsonic, and so the keepers did not bow their heads.
Now she had Pax, and Pax was a good dog. Maybe the smartest one, Congo thought. Elephants judge intelligence in animals the same way humans do: how quickly does it do what I want it to do? By those standards, Pax was brilliant. When her enclosure was expanded back in the 60’s, the job was half-assed. The gate that kept her in was grated like an old-timey jail cell. The lever that opened and closed it was ten feet towards the human side of the equation. Too far for a trunk to reach.
But dogs and elephants have one weird thing in common: they can both understand pointing.
Congo would push the dog through the bars of the gate, trunk on the butt, and once they were out she would point THERE THERE THERE at the lever. Some got it quicker than others. Pax caught on right away, and he walked himself right under the lever and looked back at Congo. She made an exaggerated DOWN motion with her trunk, and then pointed at the lever, and Pax got it on the first try: he leapt up and caught the switch in his teeth and his weight brought it down and then CHACK the gate opened and Congo was free.
Every night, except for every 18th night when it was raining, Congo and Pax would make the rounds of Harper Zoo. The pathways were blacktop and paving stone, and they hurt her feet and hips, but she did not care and she did not let her body language reveal the fact. Elephants can lie, too.
Passing the lions, two females, and she went BRAPH at them; they pretended not to notice. Her footsteps had woken the peacock, Ethelred the Unsteady, and now he limped next to her massive leg like a courtier. Pax enjoyed barking at the wolves. They’d growl, every single night, and he’d hold his ground while Congo stood over him. There were prairie dogs in an octohedral enclosure, open at the top, and she would reach her trunk and the rodents crowded around and chirped, and everyone smelled each other. Congo did not acknowledge the condors. Long story.
You can buy popcorn right inside the front gate of Harper Zoo, from a teenager in a red-and-white striped shirt and a straw hat. A genuine authentic faux-vintage popcorn cart, with the kettle bursting and erupting inside glass, and a vast reservoir for the birthed kernels below. A new teenager mans the cart every few months or so, and they are given instructions: before you leave for the day, make one last batch. Leave it there. Congo loved popcorn. She grabbed big trunkfuls and shoved it salty into her mouth, and then she searched the corners for pieces she had missed.
Congo was right by the front gate. It would have come down had she leaned on it.
She never did, but she did always close the door to the popcorn enclosure in the cart. Then she continued on her rounds; she had tapirs to see. Pax darted in and out of her lumbering and tender feet. When she was done, she would go back into her enclosure. Pax would bang the lever back up with his snout, locking her back in, and then he would wriggle through the gate and Congo would stroke him with her trunk and then they would sleep soundly knowing everything in their universe was as it should be in Harper Zoo, which is in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.