A Tribute to Winkie

Baby WinkieA six-month old infant Asian elephant arrived at Henry Vilas Zoo in 1965. She was so small that two men were able to lift her onto a table, allowing the zoo vet to get a closer look. The zoo named the infant Winkie.

The facts surrounding her separation from her family are unknown but some educated guesses can be made. During the mid-sixties, much of the wilderness of South East Asia was brought under cultivation for tea and teak plantations. When land was cleared, elephant herds were decimated and the babies sold to circuses and zoos. Winkie likely saw her family, including her mother from whom she had likely never ventured more than a few yards, killed. She was likely hustled onto a truck and moved to a camp where an international animal dealer bought her. After traveling by freighter to the United States, she likely made her way to Madison by train.

She lived in Madison for thirty-five years—through blizzards, ice storms, and sweltering summer heat. As a ten-year-old, she was moved from an aging exhibit to a "state of the art" cement barn; her space was about the size of a two-car garage. She was joined in 1982 by an African elephant calf who had survived the cull of her family in Zimbabwe. The zoo named her Penny. They were chained in place for 16 hours out of every 24. Depending on the severity of the winter, they were confined to their cement barn for months on end.

Their outside space was a flat, grit-packed yard, surrounded on three sides by a steep-sided moat and on the fourth by a solid cement wall. It was approximately one-quarter acre in size, with two logs chained down near a shallow cement wading pool. The exhibit had no browse, no slopes, no dust wallows, no mud wallows, no bathing pool, no stumps, no grass, no bushes and no trees.

Winkie was not happy. Over the years, she attacked her keepers. A few days before Christmas 1999, she lashed out at two vets examining her sore front left foot. She took them down and knocked two keepers down as well. One keeper was taken to the hospital by ambulance.

This incident galvanized authorities and strong public support in favor of moving Winkie to The Elephant Sanctuary, relocating Penny to a more appropriate setting and closing Henry Vilas Zoo's elephant exhibit forever.

After much wrangling, both in public and in private, Winkie's big day came in September 2000 when she stepped into the Sanctuary's trailer and headed south. She arrived with a hard shell and a small heart. Frankly, she arrived with a reputation for being a hardened, calloused individual, slow to trust and quick to to resort to violence.

And yet...I visited Winkie on my lunch hour almost every day from the summer of 1999 until the early summer of 2000. Sometimes, I would call to her and ask her to "chug." She would amble over and rest her trunk along a cement gate while I talked to her, offering encouragement and reports of progress with local officials. She would stay as long as I stood there. One day, she leaned over, picked up a small pebble from her enclosure and gently tossed it next to me. I picked it up, thrilled at her effort to make contact and told her so. Over the next many months, she tossed four more stones, always careful to toss them slowly and to my side. Today, they sit in a small arrangement of succulents I keep on my desk at work. I call it Winkie's Rock Garden.

Winkie, Sissy
Winkie and Sissy at the Sanctuary

More than five years have passed since Winkie's departure from Madison. Over these five years in the lush hills of Tennessee she has found the courage to shed her carapace and allow her heart to grow. She loves her human caregivers and has found a true and tender friend in Sissy.

So, Happy Valentine's Day, Winkie, from one who loves every bit of you--the frightened warrior who battled every way she knew to escape Madison, the shy creature who reached out to a stranger like me, the stubborn orphan who insisted on keeping her hope alive.

Love from Lisa Kane,
February 2006