ONE RECENT MORNING, I zipped toward the Bronx in a Lyft outfitted with a murder room’s worth of plastic. My task: to seek the meaning of solitude from an elderly female who has lived alone, more or less, for 15 years.
Her name is Happy, and she is an Asian elephant. Happy was captured, along with six others, in the early 1970s, “probably in Thailand,” according to The Atlantic. The calves, named after Disney’s seven dwarves, were sent to the U.S. and dispersed among zoos and circuses. Happy and a companion, Grumpy, ended up at the Bronx Zoo. The facility has had a number of elephants over the years, but they have mostly died off, and today there are just two: Happy and a second Elephas maximus named Patty. Owing to interpersonal conflicts of the past, Happy and Patty are kept in separate enclosures. “I always say they’re like sisters who don’t want to share the same room,” Jim Breheny, the zoo’s director, told me.
Zoo personnel travel the property’s 265 acres on golf carts, and it was on the back of Breheny’s cart that I flew past flamingos and sea lions and, for some reason, a kid wearing a bucket over his head. The zoo was open and teeming with visitors. I hadn’t been submerged in a crowd in months; it was intoxicating. Peacocks roamed. The head coverings worn by the females of New York City dazzled in their variety: Hasidic, Muslim, sun-avoidant, sporty, political, fashion-oriented. Dippin’ Dots everywhere.
Breheny steered us along the Bronx River, flowing calmly and brownly, before pulling up to Happy’s pen. The elephant area consists of two acres split by a fence. On one side is Happy. On the other, Patty. When we arrived, the two were standing in a corner, touching trunks through the fence’s bars.
It was, I should clarify, my third time glimpsing Happy. On two earlier visits, I’d arrived by the monorail, which travels a doughnut-shaped path into “the heart of the Asian wilderness” at about four mph and which last made headlines in 2012, when a man leaped from the train into a tiger den, where he was briefly handled but not seriously harmed by a 400-pound cat. (Later, when asked why he’d done it, the man’s reply was enigmatic: “Everybody in life makes choices.”) Both days, Happy had been standing motionless with her back turned, which didn’t seem to require a lot of interpretation. This time, Happy perked to attention.
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