In the olden days (the 1980s to me), I imagine people played records, maybe even cassettes to fully engulf themselves in an emotion. It’s easy to entrench ourselves in despair by cueing up music, that’s universal. There are movie titles that are guaranteed to stir up the quality of weeping reserved for weddings and funerals (Beaches, Fried Green Tomatoes, Love Story). Some books can trigger laughter, but, more easily, melancholy (The Art of Racing in the Rain, Marley & Me—okay, any book about a dying dog).
Sometimes we want to find that emotional rock-bottom place, and dwell in it. We put Jann Arden on repeat and watch reliable broken-heart movies like Out of Africa or Love Affair on Christmas Day. It’s easy to encourage sadness and hopelessness. Rain helps too, a lot.
Now we can go a step further, and instigate crying jags instantaneously with the help of viral YouTube videos. Who hasn’t found themselves in a sporadic sleep pattern, typing in the words “Christian lion reunion” or “Damian and the gorilla”? How about “orangutan & dog best friends” or “dog and dolphin”?
If you have watched any of this sob-inducing footage on repeat, surely you have also put “Tarra and Bella” on your “I feel-like-drinking-more-wine-and-having-a-good-cry” list.
The relationship between a stray dog (Bella) and an elephant (Tarra) at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee found instant fan fare on YouTube. If two species, divided by size alone, could embrace each other, what was our problem as humans?
Tarra was one of the sanctuary’s first elephants. Her devout canine sidekick, Bella, found her comfortable place in Tarra’s shadow in 2003. They were inseparable and appeared like lovers from another lifetime.
The viral video that had viewers wiping tears from their necks showed a distraught Tarra, grieving for the company of her dear dog who had suffered a spinal cord injury and was unable to walk. As Bella was recovering in the sanctuary office, Tarra kept vigil for three weeks, until her best pal was carried down to her enclosure. Tarra’s exuberant trumpet, and her trunk gingerly touching and reassuring injured Bella was heart-splitting. I have probably watched the video 30 times.
Today, my friend Karen sent a link about the tragic news of Bella. Tuesday morning Bella was missing, and sanctuary staff initiated an immediate search that continued until Wednesday. Her body was found near a barn that Tarra and five other elephants share. The Sanctuary’s vet, Dr. Scott , determined that Bella was a victim of an animal attack, most likely coyote.
But there’s more.
Due to the extent of Bella’s injuries, staff believe it would have been impossible for Bella to be found where she was, without any evidence of struggle around the area. Tarra’s trunk had blood on the underside, which led sanctuary personnel to wonder if she had found her friend and carried her back to a safer resting place.
There are parts of the story that will never be known. Did Tarra witness the attack? Did she arrive too late and in her desperation to protect Bella, carry her from the awful scene? I can’t imagine how heavy her heart felt. The anger she would have in herself for not saving Bella. The rage she would have that a precious life and friendship could be severed so unexpectedly.
Concrete evidence exists that elephants mourn. They experience debilitating sorrow and have their own funeral rites. National Geographic has documented elephants in Kenya as they discover matriarchal bones by a water source. Silently, they created a defensive circle and then elaborately touched the surface of the sacred bones before them, every crevice and notch. They held the bones in their trunks and touched them gently with their hind feet.
Similarly, a BBC documentary showed a herd that happened upon an elephant corpse. It was as though they were paying homage to the deceased with closed eyes and complex thought. They fondled the bones in a way that indicated they were fully aware of not just life, but death.
Tarra was given the opportunity to pay her last respects to Bella, but showed little interest. This is why staff suspect that she may have already said her goodbyes, having endured the night with the knowledge that her friend had passed on to another world.
Their relationship is a confirmation that regardless of our species, we are intimately connected. It would be ignorant to think that only humans could experience the crisis and hollowness of a life lost.
Dog, elephant, man—we are sharing a fragile planet. Our relationships to and with each other define us. They evolve and present a continual opportunity to change, and be better. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, remarkable things can happen.
Bella’s life should be a reminder of just that.