I found this photograph on line. This is Twinkles, in 1984, I suppose just months before she died.
The improbably named Twinkles stood alone, a prisoner enclosed on a barren knoll, not unlike the Biblical Golgotha. Her massive legs and trunk were crusted over with dusty red clay and she swayed. She swayed endlessly from side to side, her big, heavy lidded eyes with those stiff lashes seemingly empty, blank.
I stood outside the fence and watched her. I think I probably swayed a little bit too, in sympathy. I identified with her rhythmic rocking. Sometimes I clinched my arms tightly around my own torso and like Twinkles, rocked in misery. I rocked myself seated on the twin bed in the hot attic room I rented in Buckhead. I recognized, in Twinkles, a kindred spirit: we were both lonely; we were both depressed.
I spoke to her softly, crooning. "You are just soooo beautiful. So very beautiful. I'm sorry you're sad. I wish I could help."
She moved a little closer to the fence, still swaying. "I can tell, you are such a good, good girl," I continued. "Poor baby. Why don't they at least give you something to play with? Like maybe some railroad ties? I bet you could pick them up and move them around."
But there was nothing in her bleak little landscape, no trees or toys, just dust and a few sparse tufts of coarse, weedy grass. I watched as she continued swaying. Minutes slowly ticked by. Her days must be endlessly long and lonely, I thought.
I probably stayed with Twinkles about half an hour before I wandered away from her enclosure to go have a look at some of the other animals in the zoo, but it was hopeless. I could not make myself muster any interest in tigers, monkeys, or prairie dogs. My mind kept straying back to Twinkles. I sensed that she and I were animal/human soul mates.
More than anything, I wanted to help her, but I felt helpless. All I knew to do was to go back and try to convey some sympathy and affection to her with my presence and voice. I wanted to comfort her and I hoped that she would understand.
I stayed with her until closing time. Other people came and went and I watched them as they watched her.
It was Sunday and the zoo closed at six p.m. At a quarter 'til six, a voice came on the loudspeaker and asked visitors to start making their way toward the exit. I reluctantly said goodbye to Twinkles and followed the rest of the crowd out.
The next morning, I went back to my menial and meaningless job at the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau where I worked on publications for Bureau members. The Atlanta Zoo was, of course, one of our biggest dues paying members and advertisers. Their ads in our directories were always full page, glossy splashes with photographs of smiling children and sleek, contented looking animals.
It was perhaps a year or so later when I heard the sad news: Twinkles was dead. The newscaster said that she had only been twelve years old, not much more than an adolescent in elephant years.
She had developed some kind of malady with her feet and was supposed to have been sent to a farm in Alpharetta to rest and recover, but for unknown reasons, the zoo didn't send her there. Instead, they sold her off to some third rate little circus in North Carolina where she soon died under mysterious circumstances.
As it turned out, Twinkles was not the only animal associated with the Atlanta Zoo to die under suspicious circumstances in the early 1980s. In fact, she was one of nine. The Humane Society lodged a formal complaint and the Atlanta Zoo was cited as one of the ten worst zoos in the country. With the publicity surrounding Twinkle's sale and death, the zoo was very nearly shut down.
It did not shut down however, and to its credit, it reinvented itself and made a significant turnaround. Today, it is said to be one of the better zoos in the U.S.
Twinkle's death occurred in 1984. That was 30 years ago. And yet, this morning, while I walked alone, I found myself thinking about her again.
I don't know why, but Twinkles still haunts me.