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The Astonishing Elephant Hardcover – May 16, 2000

4.3 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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The New York-bred journalist and television commentator Shana Alexander, who has written biographies of checkered-career socialites Bess Meyerson, Jean Harris, and Patty Hearst, may seem at first blush to be an unlikely student of Loxodonta africana and Elephas maximus. Yet she has been an attentive devotee of elephants since witnessing, on Easter Sunday 1962, the birth of a 225-pound elephant at the Portland Zoo, an event she covered for Life magazine--and one that captivated countless readers.

Elephant is an unabashed celebration of these mysterious creatures, whose closest living relatives are the dugong and the hyrax. "They have," Alexander writes, "essential nobility, grace, serenity, sagacity, loyalty and playfulness, a simple goodness, a lack of animosity--unless provoked." While, she admits, elephants can pose particular dangers to unwary humans (she recounts tales of circus trainers of her acquaintance, some of whom fell in action), they are too often the victims in any interaction with people. The elephant's fortunes have long been declining: where only a few thousand years ago several species roamed the earth, by 1980 the combined wild populations in Africa and Asia numbered fewer than 100,000 individuals.

Alexander writes with a light hand about the curiosities of elephantine biology and social life, among them the phenomena of musth, where young males challenge their elders; flehmen, that curious teeth-baring smile exhibited by so many mammals in the course of mating; and the uncanny ability of elephants to communicate with each other over great distances. Citing published reports and drawing on extensive interviews with scientists and conservationists over the last four decades, she champions the elephants' cause in an admirable and engrossing book. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Set apart from other creatures in the animal kingdom by size, dexterity and emotional range, elephants have fascinated humankind for centuries. They've tantalized Alexander since 1962, when, on an assignment for Life magazine, she witnessed the first-ever elephant birth in an American zoo. This passionate book chronicles her three-decade obsession with the pachyderm. Following her curiosities down a seemingly random course, Alexander (whose previous books--Anyone's Daughter, for instance--were mostly biographies) explores humans' interest in the gentle monster, from cave paintings to ancient myths, from circus shows to scientific research. She tells of how 19th-century circus promoters regularly killed off the male elephants in their care, details the place of elephants in Hannibal's famous armies and profiles the scientists who have devoted their lives to learning about these creatures by, for example, analyzing gallons of their urine. Meanwhile, Alexander corrects common myths about elephants' character and culture--they have neither graveyards nor a fear of mice--and supplies in their place a series of equally astonishing truths (elephants communicate over miles at subaudible frequencies and resemble humans in their remarkable expressions of emotions, like grief and concern for others, and intelligence). Written in clear prose that mixes technical jargon with colloquialisms, this book is a stampede of emotion and information, and--though a bit disorderly--a gripping account of one species' obsession with another. 16-page photo insert not seen by PW. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (May 16, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679456600
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679456605
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,673,294 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Marilyn Dalrymple VINE VOICE on December 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Astonishing Elephant by Shana Alexander is educational, well researched and written, and an absorbing book. If you love animals, though, it is heartbreaking to learn how cruel and unfeeling the human animal can be toward our earthmates--the animals.
The very things that elephants are admired for--their strength, intelligence, sensitivity, the female's maternal instincts and the elephants' propensity to live as families--are the very reasons the abuse of such animals (or any animal) is so horrific.
This book will increase your knowledge of the astonishing elephant, but may break your heart.
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Format: Hardcover
Astonishingly good book by a gifted writer. Journalist Shana Alexander recounts her personal experiences with elephants beginning with 'Packy" born at Portland Zoo, and continuing into late 1990's.
She was privileged to meet and work with many well known elephant people like the Douglas-Hamiltons, Moss, Poole, Rasmussen and others and tells of these encounters while describing the work they do and some of the interesting findings they have made.
The book covers some unusual aspects of elephant lore including a history and causes of the demise of male elephants in captivity. Parts of the reporting are gruesome.
In the latter portions she devotes a great deal of material to breeding and artificial insemination efforts, giving details of procedures as she witnessed them.
While keeping her writing at a professional level she lets her love of elephants comes through. Preservation of the species is an underlying theme of this work but it is not an 'in your face' assault on the reader.
I read it slowly over a one month period and my experience was akin to having her come for a chat every other evening and spend an hour or two telling me about elephants and her experiences. A wonderful book.
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Format: Hardcover
What is really astonishing about the information in this book is the degree to which elephants have been maltreated through the ages. This huge, mostly gentle giant has been abused in manifold ways in circuses and zoos. The book is mostly about elephants in captivity and the quest to be able to breed captive elephants through AI - artificial insemination. The AI process is incredibly invasive and take a great deal of specialist and expense. AND they dont want male offspring as male elephants become unruly once they are adult. The story of how elephants have been treated in circuses is not longer a secret, ' ...elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity.' Alexander tells about this but is strangely distant in her criticism. She gets on board with the zoos that are trying to breed using AI. If all those funds were instead spent on securing wilderness for Asian and African elephants I believe it would be a much better decision. Alexander says that AI in the USA will help save the elephant from extermination. This is hardly likely. It has more to do with the dollars that zoos get from their elephant exhibits. Its a sad book, a heartrending book. In recent times we have learnt more and more about how amazing the elephant is: its emotional nature, its intelligence, its social structures and its way of communicating. And yet we continue to abuse them. The day that the last circus releases their last elephant into a sanctuary will be a day to celebrate. This book is now 16 years old and hopefully we have moved along that road a little way.
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Format: Hardcover
They're the strongest swimmers in the land animal world. T'would be nothing for an elephant to swim to Saipan. Memory stronger than a human's. Some believe smartest animal after man.

Some say strongest sense of smell. I can get along with that as far as scent differentiation; but can't believe a bloodhound can be beat for sheer tracking power.

Includes a nice mini bio of PT Barnum, who overcame huge setbacks on the way to creating the Greatest Show on Earth.

This is an outstanding homage to a magnificent animal in history and legend by a real pro.

So much on mating, breeding, estrus, pheromones, and artificial insemination gets tiresome: quit while you're ahead.
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