On a recent trip to David Sheldrick in Kenya, I had a private visit with my baby elephants, many of whom have been orphaned by the ivory trade. If you foster one or more, you’ll get a year’s worth of emails about what they’re up to (hint: it’s mostly eating, stealing milk from a wheelbarrow full of bottles, and wallowing in mud.)
My father wants to take my sister and me on a trip. Consider Tonga! suggests travel website he forwards us. See the tombs of ancient kings, the landing sites of Captain Cook, and two seaside blowholes. Although the blowholes intrigue me, I quickly find the main attraction to be buried below descriptions of Polynesian music, floral and faunal folklore, and something called “tapa cloth.”
The reason to travel thirty-six hours to Tonga is a unique opportunity to swim with humpback whales, which migrate to the protective reefs of the archipelago every summer from the krill-rich Antarctic to calve. Hear their beautiful singing, it says. I imagine ethereal notes echoing through an empty lagoon. But when I finally do get into the water with them, it sounds more like a deep fart.
When it occurs to you that swimming with manatees is a thing you can do, immediately book a flight to Florida. Touring the natural habitat of these aquatic mammals is within a couple hours’ drive from Orlando.
Although it’s possible any time of year, winter is prime swimming-with-sea-cows season. Despite their rotund frames, these hefty creatures have not been blessed with an insulating layer of blubber and therefore not well equipped for the cold. During the winter months, they travel inland from the bays to huddle together in natural spring water, which remains around 72 degrees year-round. (It’s worth nothing that what makes a comfortable water temperature for a 1,500-pound manatee will still seem pretty fucking cold to you, even in your wetsuit.)
If you book with a reputable company, you will watch an educational video about how to respectfully interact with the sirens of the sea, who were famously mistaken for mermaids by colonial explorers. It’s essentially an education in active consent that everyone should be aware of, regardless of species: Do not approach a manatee; let it approach you. Do not pursue or follow the manatee. Do not touch the manatee unless it initiates the interaction, in which case you may touch it using one open hand.
Once you head out on your pontoon tour boat, you’ll start to see ominous 11-foot blobs in the shallow waters, grazing on the riverbed. Try referring to them (at least in your own head) with adorable diminutives, like “mannies” or “tee-tees.” This will calm your nerves about getting in murky water with what is effectively a one-ton, sea-grass Roomba.
The mannies can kick up quite a bit of silt, which may limit your visibility to a few feet or less. Once you’re actually in the water, your job will be to stay as still as possible, floating at the surface in a snorkel and mask, waiting for them come to you. Pro tip: prepare yourself for their sheer size and apparent disregard for personal space. You might suddenly find yourself six inches from a giant, whiskery grill and set of flared nostrils surfacing to breathe. Try not to act startled.
The thing about tee-tees is that they’re skittish — they don’t care much for noise or splashing. Should you be late to realize that there’s one directly beneath you and it’s now rising out of the water like Godzilla with you on its back, resist the urge to say “Fuuuuuuuuuck,” even quietly to yourself. You don’t want to scare off a nearby calf who might be planning to float curiously toward you like a space puppy, circling a few times before stopping a mere inch from your hand.
Nuh-uh, you might think, I’m not falling for that.
You will have already internalized the rules against harassing wildlife. But you’ll soon realize, like every dense love interest in a rom-com eventually does, that this little guy is putting himself out there — and he’s just what your jaded heart needs. So you lift your hand out, ET-style, and he swims by, his algae-dotted skin rough and slimy against your open palm.
If you’re lucky, he might go so far as to use his flippers to hug your arm. Prepare to squeal with a mix of delight and disgust at the three fingernails he has on each, an evolutionary remnant of his land-dwelling ancestry. More closely related to the elephant than the seal, manatees use their boney flippers like arms to help them crawl along the seafloor or riverbed, scooping food into their mouths. Eating ten percent of one’s body weight, let alone a manatee's, in plants is an ambitious goal indeed.
When you get too cold in the water (or realize you’re just kind of tired of this), you will climb back in your boat, take off your wetsuit, and ride in a van to the souvenir shop. There, you can select from a variety of t-shirts, baseball caps, stuffed animals, and other small trinkets that proudly announce, “I Swam with the Manatees in Crystal River.”
You may also be given the opportunity to purchase underwater photos documenting your adventure and will likely pay whatever price is demanded in order to truly be able to treasure this memory forever — and show it off to your friends, family, and colleagues.
You’ll explain to them how West Indian Tee-Tees are threatened by habitat destruction and human activity. You’ll declare it a mystery where they go to survive hurricanes, but for the most part they do (save for a small handful stranded by storm surges). You’ll repeat the phrase, nobody really knows how smart they are, over and over.
Whomever you happen to be talking to will smile, nod, and slowly back away — especially when you get to the part about the fingernails. But it won’t bother you one bit, because who needs humans when you have mastered the art of interspecies aquatic interaction? You have swum with the manatees, goddammit. You have already won.
If there were a soundtrack to “Stretch and Snuggle,” a Saturday morning yoga class held alongside residents of the Brooklyn Cat Cafe, it would be sustained, high-pitched giggling. The cafe is really a shelter that opened a year ago on Atlantic Avenue — with a few cozy couches to sit on and snacks you can purchase while playing with adoptable cats for a modest fee of $5. Or you can shell out $25 like I did for a good hour-long stretch among friends.
Given the age-old problem of living in New York and never being home, I currently don’t have any pets. I used to walk dogs at a shelter in Manhattan, but ended up spending an inordinate amount of time cleaning up poop — inordinate for an extracurricular activity anyway.
Recently, I’ve found myself gravitating toward cats — often at dinner parties or other social occasions where I can use them to get out of talking to other humans. Unfortunately, when I brought up the possibility of adopting one, my husband informed me of his cat allergy. To get my feline fix, I decided I needed a solution that would offer maximum access with minimal effort. Lazy yoga once a month sounded perfect.
I arrived at the cat cafe in Brooklyn Heights on a Saturday morning to find at least a dozen of my furry friends gliding around a storefront the size of a nail salon, like denizens in a dry aquarium. Later, while cat-ing and cowing, upward dogging and child’s posing, I would notice even more pairs of eyes hidden between shelves and under sofas. Every once in awhile, a giant mass of black and brown stripes weaved slowly in and out of the crowd — a whale shark among fish, menacing in appearance but harmless in disposition.
One of the five other women waiting for class to begin passed me a laser pointer, which I used to disrupt the flow of cats for a minute or so before we laid out our mats. The policy is BYO, and preferably one you don’t care about, since scratching it into oblivion will be the only objective of at least one of your new friends. Luckily, an orange cat too lazy to do any damage plopped down squarely in front of me and gave a half-ass swipe at my yoga strap before lying down and rolling over onto his side.
Elsewhere, turf wars ensued. One woman forgot to bring a mat and had to use clean blankets that belonged to the shelter’s inhabitants. When we rolled onto our backs, the cats immediately swarmed her. A persistent little kitty with a pink collar put its head in her armpit and dug under her back with a tiny white paw. I’m pretty sure it was trying to dislocate her shoulder.
Since the cats are constantly in flux due to adoptions and fostering, the crew you’ll encounter at yoga is difficult to predict. When we stood up to lunge and stretch our hamstrings using blocks, a black and white clan of four, dubbed the “tuxedo mafia,” swished under and around our legs. As the action heated up, the instructor peppered our giggling with declarations like “Oh, it’s live this month!” And when a fat cat perched at the front of the room hissed at a little kitten, she made sure to scold him for it. “Rude!”
Throughout the class, we were encouraged to “Stop, drop, and snuggle” with any cat we fancied, which I did strategically when I was tired of pretending to do yoga. (If you like a good stretch but can’t commit to practicing yoga often enough to enjoy it, this class is probably the right level for you.) The next day, I noticed my armpits were sore — I think from holding my arms out toward cats as they ran away from me.
Not being practiced in the art of cat whispering means not knowing how to properly entice them with hand games or tsk-ing noises. I had only my dog cooing voice and size advantage to rely on. Luckily, at the end of the class, the instructor rounded up six cats and handed them to us individually to cuddle with. I got a grey and black striped kitten who let me pet him for a few minutes before darting off to hide behind some blocks.
Afterwards, I stayed for another twenty minutes or so to watch them mill about, unencumbered by flailing floor beasts. I noticed a few scaredy cats who had remained hidden during the commotion now popping their heads up from behind furniture — only to hide again once we made eye contact. Soon, feeding time attracted a swell to the front, where nearly every hard surface, including the counter and garbage can, had suddenly became covered in cats. The eating frenzy should have been at least a little nauseating. Still, I found myself not wanting to leave.
It turns out that cat yoga is a gateway drug — and not to more yoga. Unlike dogs, whose incessant whining demands constant attention, cats are fairly apathetic. There’s no pressure to answer to their every whim. Unfortunately, due to my life circumstances, I seem destined to remain pet-less for at least the foreseeable future. My inner cat lady will have to make due with “Stretch and Snuggle,” although I am considering expanding my repertoire.
The Brooklyn Cat Cafe does offer other classes, although space fills up if you don’t book in advance. I tried to sign up for a Sunday morning “Cats and Mats” session the night before — only to find it unavailable. There’s also a regular yoga class on Wednesday nights, but it doesn’t have a clever name, like “Purr-fect Pose” (or, perhaps more a more accurate description would be “There’s a Cat in my Armpit”). If you are truly lazy, do not despair. They also have movie night and happy hour.
No cats were harmed in the writing of this post. They did, however, see me doing yoga.
A family of orphaned baby elephants tromp through a clearing in the woods toward a muddy area cordoned off by a single yellow rope. The smallest, less than a year old, has a blanket tied to her back for warmth and security.
A large group of humans are gathered here as well, at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park, to observe the morning feeding, a daily occurrence that's open to the public. We watch as doting caretakers, Kenyan men in green jackets and rubber boots, hand-feed the baby elephants milk bottles. To them, it’s just one of the eight feedings that happen in a day, but to us, it’s a unique spectacle. Members of the hungry herd rapidly gulp down the contents of milk bottles before starting in on freshly cut branches of leaves.
The scene was made possible by Daphne Sheldrick, who, upon her husband’s death in 1977, founded the trust. Since baby elephants are milk-dependent until age three, the poaching of a mother has a heartbreaking ripple effect: her calf must be left behind by the herd, which means either death by starvation or predator attack.
Daphne began raising orphans at her home in Tsavo National Park, where her late husband David worked as the warden in the 60s and 70s. At the time, no one had ever successfully hand-reared infant elephants—they could not survive on cow's milk. Through a painful process of trial and error, during which she lost several calves, Daphne discovered the non-dairy formula that would save many elephants' lives to come.
Beyond the sustenance of their mothers’ milk, she observed that orphans needed the same loving bonds provided by their families in the wild. Elephants are smart, sensitive creatures who live in matriarchal groups led by the eldest female. Babies receive not only care from their mother but also a cadre of aunts and siblings.
The nursery in Nairobi is designed to provide calves with the emotional support required for them to thrive. Orphans spend their days in the forest learning how to forage for food under the watchful eye of a rotating staff of human keepers. Each man sleeps in a stable on a bunk above the elephant, keeping a close proximity for overnight feedings.
The calves often arrive traumatized, victims of poaching, drought, and human-wildlife conflict, which may include being trapped in unused water wells or speared by locals protecting their crops. It can take up to ten years for orphans to be fully rehabilitated, which happens via a special reintegration unit where they can interact with wild herds by day and still have a safe place to sleep at night.
In the 40 years since the trust was established, it's rehabilitated and returned over 200 orphan elephants to the wild. As David Sheldrick himself was always quick to point out, wild orphans are merely "on loan" until they can resume their rightful place in the natural order of things. But that doesn't make having to say goodbye any less bittersweet.