I was helping walk the elephants when we all heard the rifle go off.
It was a little after seven o’clock on a February morning. We had to walk the elephants early, because it couldn’t be done during normal theme-park hours. The elephants were walked through the park, and tourists would just get in the way.
In the wild, elephants walk a lot. They’ve been known to cover more than fifty miles in a day, although the average is around twenty. They’re built for walking (they’re the only animal with four knees), but even at a massive, state-of-the-art place like FunJungle Wild Animal Park, there couldn’t be an exhibit big enough to let them roam that far. So, in the interest of keeping the elephants fit and happy, the staff walked them in the morning, the same way normal people walked their dogs—only, the pooper-scoopers were a lot bigger.
I wasn’t really supposed to be walking the elephants because I was only twelve years old. Any animal that weighs eight tons and is capable of lifting a small car can be dangerous. But since I was the only kid who lived at FunJungle, I’d gotten to know lots of the keepers well, so they cut me some slack—as long as I kept a safe distance and one of my parents came with me.
That was easy to arrange. My father was always happy to bring me. As a professional wildlife photographer, he didn’t mind getting up early; that was the best time to take pictures of animals in the wild. Plus, being with the elephants reminded him of life back in Africa. My mother was a famous primatologist, and before my folks had been hired by FunJungle, we’d spent ten years in a tent camp in the Congo while Mom studied chimpanzees. We’d all loved it, but a war had forced us to give up that life. Living in a trailer park behind the world’s biggest zoo was probably as close to the African experience as we could get, but it still wasn’t quite the same.
For starters, it was really cold that morning. The temperature in the Congo had rarely dropped below seventy degrees, while winters in central Texas could be bone-chilling. I had never even owned a sweater in Africa; Now I was wrapped in a ski jacket with three layers underneath. Our breath clouded the air in front of us, while steam rose off the elephants’ warm bodies.
The elephants didn’t seem bothered by the cold, though. The whole herd was there, twelve elephants ranging in age from two to sixty. Eleanor, the matriarch, was in the lead, while the younger mothers and their offspring followed. (The park’s only breeding male, Tembo, had to be kept apart and did his walks late at night.)
It took five keepers to control the elephants. Two flanked the herd on either side, gently directing them along Adventure Road, the park’s main concourse. The keepers were all armed with brooms with the bristles wrapped in towels, which looked kind of like giant Q-tips. These were used to gently prod the elephants along, or to nudge them back into line should they veer off and try to eat an expensive piece of landscaping.
Bonnie Melton, the head keeper, brought up the rear. Bonnie had forty years of experience in zoos and knew more about elephants than almost anyone on earth. She was wrinkled as a prune—caring for elephants meant you spent a lot of time in the sun—but she had the enthusiasm of a kindergartener. While none of her subordinate keepers seemed pleased to be working so early, Bonnie was chipper as could be, even though she had an industrial-size pooper-scooper slung over her shoulder.
“How’s school going, Teddy?” she a"This middle-grade mystery series is the bee’s knees for animal fiends."