Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Elephant Company - Vicki Constantine Croke

Last fall I read a book called Elephant Bill, about a man named Jim Williams, who worked in Burma for over 20 years, mostly in charge of elephants and their riders who worked for a lumber firm, but during World War II, as head of a company of elephants used for constructing bridges and roads through the jungle for the British Army. That book was one of Williams' memoirs, mostly detailing what he'd learned about elephants from working with them, but also talking some about his life.

Croke covers much of the same ground, but also discusses some things Williams left out. As it turns out, Williams was not the sort to speak often of painful emotional moments in his life, so there were certain things he glossed over in his writings - such as the loss of one of his children to illness - that Croke at least touches on. She also goes into more depth on his interactions with the man who was sort of his mentor/supervisor when he first reached Burma, the guy Williams mostly referred to as "Harding".

Croke's book covers ground, but to a lesser depth. Reading it feels like skimming along there surface, that there's a lot more to some of the stories than she felt there was time for. Her book is also written with quite a bit of focus and importance placed on the relationship between Williams and one elephant in particular, Bandoola. It was Bandoola and his trainer, Po Toke, who helped WIlliams crystallize his idea that rather than focus on capturing wild adult elephants and breaking them to become work animals, focus on helping your captive elephants babies survive and train them from an early age. Perhaps even more critically, use positive reinforcement rather than trying to beat them into submission. Which might explain some of that skimming I mentioned, if Croke is opting to focus more heavily on moments that involve some combination of Williams, Po Toke, and Bandoola.

Given the choice, I'd say read Elephant Bill if you can find it, but Elephant Company isn't a bad fallback option.

'Po Toke, it turned out, had blueprinted a new kind of training for logging elephants, and Bandoola was the living embodiment of it. Over the loud sawing of jungle insects, Williams learned about a method of schooling that resonated deeply with him. Po Toke's revolutionary strategy was built as much on love as it was on logic.'

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