Do you remember Cindy the elephant? When she died in 2002 at the Point Defiance Zoo, she was 40 years old and had been suffering from arthritis. One day the pain in her monster joints got so bad, she couldn't stand up on her own. The once-feisty Asian elephant had become a massive heap of misery. As no amount of medicine or surgery could bring that famous beast back to good health, the zoo officials decided to put Cindy to sleep. Her last day on earth was November 19, 2002.
A week after she was euthanized, Qar Dead Animal Removal, a company based in Graham, Washington, was called to do what it does best. This was the first elephant Qar had to deal with, but it was by no means the first time they were hired to remove an unusual creature. They once dealt with a dead sea lion near the ferry terminals in Seattle. The company's philosophy is: Anything that dies, we go pick up. When the Qar people arrived at the zoo, they were surprised to find not a whole elephant, but an elephant in pieces. For reasons related to the advancement of science, the zoo vets had cut Cindy's head and legs off for a necropsy. The head and legs were now in several 55-gallon drums, and the main body was split wide open—a 10-foot-long, 7-foot-wide slab of elephant meat. With the assistance of thick metal chains and machine-powered pulleys, the removal specialists loaded Cindy's remains onto a truck and took her (as they do all other dead animals) to the rendering plant. At this place, animal corpses are transformed into bonemeal (which goes into fertilizers, which bring life back to exhausted soil). The rendering plant also makes tallow, which is a soap ingredient (which brings zing back to dry flesh).
The rendering plant rejected the elephant. It was not their business to process things like elephants—nor for that matter, rhinos, giraffes, or hippos. Keep those kinds of beasts away from their plant. The big obstacle forced the removal specialists to call the health department. The people at the health department put their heads together and came up with an idea: Take it to a landfill. Faced with no other options and burdened by the decomposing elephant in the back of the truck (big-eyed flies buzzing at the insane amount of meat that came out of nowhere), they went to a landfill. A huge hole was dug at the edge of the wasteland, Cindy's parts were dropped into that hole, and a bulldozer covered her with lots of garbage. The job was done.
This, however, was not the end of Qar's problems. It was only the beginning.
"Popular-elephant carcass dumped with the garbage," reported KOMO News a few nights later. Although Cindy was an irascible elephant, known as "possibly the most dangerous elephant in the country" (as the head of the elephant program at a zoo in Portland, Oregon, described her to the Associated Press in 1982) and a "bad girl" with a "notoriously unpredictable disposition" (Seattle Times, December 27, 1992)—despite all of these issues, Cindy had thousands of fans and admirers. Indeed, in the early 1990s, Cindy was responsible for record-breaking visits at the zoo (News Tribune, 2003). People had real feelings for her. She was part of many childhood memories. This big thing with a bony head and rubber-thick skin. And so when it was leaked to the press that her life—a life that began exotically in the jungles of India (she was captured in 1962 and brought into the human world), which involved a trip across the Pacific Ocean, a year promoting a mall in Nevada, a stormy relationship with Tacoma zookeepers, a banishment to San Diego, and a triumphant return to Tacoma—when this life came to an end in a garbage dump, the public was not at all pleased, zoo officials were deeply embarrassed, and community leaders demanded answers fast. Why wasn't Cindy cremated?
"We feel fortunate to have been able to share in a part of her remarkable life," wrote Cindy's caretakers (Craig, Shannon, Paul, Stephanie, Aimee, Andy, and Sally) and elephant family (Suki and Hanako) on the obituary page of www.elephants.com. At the top of the page is an elephant ghost depicted high above a setting sun, golden rays of light, and strips of darkening clouds. This may have been where Cindy's spirit went (elephant heaven) but not her body (a Pierce County landfill).
"Channel 4, 5, 7, 13, and 11 all came down to our house and wanted to know why Cindy the elephant got put into a landfill. I told them the landfill was the only other option of what we could possibly do with this thing," says Bud Mothershed, 35, who now owns Qar Dead Animal Removal and at the time of the Cindy scandal was working for his father, Richard, the founder of the business (it started in 1980). Bud has owned Qar for the past six years, after buying the company from his father, and he now picks up dead animals with his 6-year-old son, who is fast learning the business of removing things that no longer move. "The people at the zoo," says Bud, "are a bunch of pricks, and they skipped us with the bill—they owe us $500. They told everyone that we lied to them and said it was gonna be cremated, and they told everyone we took this poor elephant up to the landfill and booted it out. That's not how it was at all. The zoo made it seem like we were the assholes. But they didn't even tell everyone that it wasn't a whole elephant—it was an 8,000-pound elephant that had been cut up. We came to pick this thing up, and they never said: 'Oh, by the way, we cut this thing's head off. And, oh, by the way, we cut this thing's legs off. And, oh, by the way, it's in 55-gallon drums.' They made it seem like we took poor Cindy and went and threw her in a garbage dump. That's not what happened."
A scan of the reports concerning the scandal shows not one newspaper or news station siding with Qar Dead Animal Removal. In this blame battle, the zoo enjoyed a complete PR victory.
"We had people calling us up, hate mail, you name it. We had people calling us up at three o'clock in the morning telling us we're bastards. My mom had to deal with people calling her up and telling her she's a bitch and all this stuff. When we pick the animal up and we leave the property, it's our responsibility to get rid of the animal in the proper way. When you take it to the only rendering plant in the state of Washington and they say they're not taking it, what are you supposed to do? There's nothing else to do with it. The elephant was probably the most pain-in-the-ass thing we've ever had come through here."
I ask Bud for his second-worst experience as an animal remover. "There was a barn fire a couple months ago in Spanaway. Fourteen horses died in the barn fire. That was pretty nasty and took a day and a half to clean. I had to bring chain saws and cut the barn doors... and got a couple of guys to help me pull a bunch of burned horses out."
His next-worst experience? "A chicken ranch called me up—they had 10,000 chickens die on them."
His next-worst experience? "It was summertime, and a big huge semi loaded with dead animals broke down and sat there on the side of the road for a day. They had to take it to a mechanic shop. But the mechanic told them to unload it, because he didn't want to work on it with all the dead animals in the back. We had to pull out all these rotten animals."
I finally ask Bud to tell me the one important thing that the public should know about dead animals. "If something wanders over to someone's property and dies in someone's backyard, the county roads department won't touch it. Because private property is a private person's problem. Your house, your problem. The county roads department won't go get it, so they tell the people to call someone like me. I go out there, clean up whatever is dead, and I charge the homeowner..."
After a moment of silence—I'm busy making notes and checking to see if there are any remaining questions about his line of work—Bud, who has been very open and friendly, suddenly goes dark and asks me a dark question: "I have been doing all the talking. Now you tell me something. Why do you want to know all these things about my job? What are you up to?" Not wanting him to think badly of me, I tell Bud the whole sad truth. That truth comes in the form of a story. Bud listens to the story.
While in college, I was hired to take care of two horses (one was brown, the other white; the brown one was tall, the white one short; the big one was called Dandy, the small one Angel). Both had outlived their owner's childhood. The girl (whom I will call Margo) had become a young woman, moved to another state to study law, and left her aging mother—a short woman with ugly glasses, straight legs, big breasts, and a sandpaper-rough voice—with the responsibility of caring for the abandoned gods of her childhood. The mother (whom I will call Mrs. Beasley) lived in an almost-well-to-do area between Bothell Way and Lake Washington. Her house, a kind of Spanish villa, was crumbling. Its thick walls and the low-pitched tile roof were slowly making their journey back to a state of nature, back to the green of plants and randomness of rocks.
In fact, it was not a stretch to compare Mrs. Beasley's run-down place with Miss Havisham's ruined mansion in Great Expectations. Both were time stuck, dust dominated, and dramatically disintegrating. However, the reasons for Mrs. Beasley's ruins were not the same as Miss Havisham's. Though dumped by her husband for another woman, Mrs. Beasley's mess and must had more to do with the innate core of her personality rather than a traumatic event in her life. Old Miss Havisham's decay was, of course, entirely connected to one big event in her youth—she was jilted at the last minute by her fiancé. For that one reason, she froze the time in her home. Nothing moved beyond the minute of that betrayal. Miss Havisham's place was all about hate, whereas Mrs. Beasley's was about a love for floating/falling particles, creaking furniture, dank spaces, and moldy smells. Her TV set was old, her couch had holes, and her video player munched and digested tapes. Even her dog, a brown Chinese shar-pei, seemed like something imported from a distant time.
Mrs. Beasley was a hardcore Republican. She ran for some political office twice and lost twice. She had meetings with neighborhood Republicans—a music teacher, a widower who fought in World War II, a boat owner. As they sat in the living room, denouncing this or that policy, rats ran up and down the walls of the crumbling house. The rats used the home not as a point of destination but as a way to get from the ground to the trees and from the trees to the ground. Mrs. Beasley's meetings always came to an end with resolutions that were sent to a larger body of the party.
Big trees surrounded the Beasley house, and the lake was to the east of the house. Both the moon and the sun rose from the hill on the east side of the lake. On this hill was a dense and medieval forest that was threatened by development encroaching from Bothell and Kirkland. Seaplanes rose from and landed at a floating base in Kenmore. At the back of the house, at the bottom of a small valley between a road winding in the west and the end of the yard surrounded by trees, was the stable and corral. The horses lived down there.
My job was to feed and entertain the heavy and hairy creatures. The job was easy and paid well enough for the little work and time it demanded. Only the bus trip to the Beasley place was a drag (I was living in Ballard at the time); aside from that, it was a perfect job for a young man whose day was mostly spent reading Russian literature.
As for my relationship with the horses? I tried my best. I tried to brush them, I tried to talk to them, I tried to see things their way. Nevertheless, Angel and Dandy always looked at me in the way a human being looks at a passing apparition. I made no sense to them whatsoever. Where did I come from? Why was I black? Where was their mistress? They were always waiting for the return of Margo. They wanted her to ride and groom them again. They wanted her girl-arms thrown around their thick necks. Where had all the flowers gone?
At night, under the moon and stars and leaves, after I led the beasts into their stalls and locked them up, Angel and Dandy would stick their heads out above the door and look at me with puzzled but moist eyes. The white horse was ghostly, the brown one animated. Indeed, Dandy had a lot of life in him. His dense muscles, tough hair, and the hot air that shot out of his huge nostrils—all of this burning, beating, and breathing added up to an abundance of life. With watery eyes, Dandy and Angel would watch the strange form of me walk up the path and return to the world of Gogol and Sologub.
I did this job from spring to fall without a hitch. The horses spent the day out in the open and the night closed in the stable. The Republicans generated resolution after resolution. The rats ran up and down the house. The moon rose over the lake and crossed the corral. The lake reflected the moon. Winter came and it got real cold. By the middle of December, it started to snow. On the day before Christmas, Mrs. Beasley was in Maine visiting a sister and I was at her home visiting the horses. The sun was out, but ice and snow covered the ground. I walked down the path with an empty bucket, entered the stable, and opened the water tap in Dandy's stall—but nothing came out of it. The cold had frozen the pipes. I had to carry water from the crumbling house down to the stables. This was a bitch because I badly wanted to leave to Portland for the holiday. The time of my train's departure was quickly nearing, and I was stuck here making sure the horses had enough food and water for my three-day absence. Finally, everything was done and I left the Beasley house and its horses.
I returned four days later to find a horrible sight in Dandy's section of the stable. This is what happened: The day after I left, the weather had gotten warmer, and the day after that, the cold and snow returned. As a result, the frozen tap I'd turned on (but nothing came out of) began to run, filling Dandy's stall with water, up past Dandy's hooves. Then when things went cold on that following day, the water turned to deadly ice. The horse was still alive, but his knees were freezing. His big eyes were in a lot of pain. I opened the stall door and Dandy pulled his freezing feet out of the ice. Crack by crack, he walked out of the ice box. And then Dandy collapsed in the middle of the corral. The light of the afternoon sun fell on the heap of hair and frost. This did not look good.
When Mrs. Beasley returned the next day, which was warm again, Dandy had not left the spot of his drop. We both looked at the poor horse, and I pretended to be as puzzled as Mrs. Beasley. What's wrong with Dandy? Why does he look so down and out of it? Angel was silently standing at a distance. He, like I, did not throw any light on the mystery. The ice in Dandy's stall had melted. There was no evidence of my error. It was decided that if Dandy did not rise the next day, a horse doctor would be called.
Dandy did not rise the next day because he was dead.
Instead of calling a doctor, we called an animal-removal service. Mrs. Beasley was surprisingly calm about the so sudden and so inexplicable death. She had the attitude that it was all a fact of life. One day you're alive, the next day you're not. There are no guarantees in this world. Our lives hang by a thread. True, indeed. And if some absentminded bugger leaves your feet in ice for 40 or so hours, there is nothing you can do but die.
The animal-removal person arrived around noon. All of the snow was gone. You could see grass again. Light fell through the denuded branches. The remover parked her truck on the road on the west side of the corral, cleared some brush for a drag path, knocked down a fence, and ran chain to the horse's bulk. Angel was in the stall eating hay. The remover was a woman with long Nordic hair. She was somewhere in the late part of her 30s. Her legs were heavy. She was a wild-looking woman.
The horse was harnessed, and the machine started pulling it toward the truck, which contained the forms of other dead animals from around the city. As the machine pulled Dandy up the hill, his body hit bushes and stumps. When a rock blocked the movement up the hill, the noisy machine terrifically roared down at the rock, and the terrified rock rolled away, and the corpse continued up the path. At one moment, the chain got stuck. A big dead thing on the bed of the truck was caught in the chain. The wild woman climbed onto the truck, and then onto the dead animal, and then jumped up and down on it until its lifeless form freed the chain. When the noisy machine started pulling Dandy again, she looked over at Mrs. Beasley and me and noticed that we were completely together in the horror we felt from the way she jumped on that dead big thing.
The woman stopped the machine and walked down to us. "Look," she said with fake sensitivity, "that thing is dead. It don't feel a thing. If it were living, there is no way I would treat it like that. Okay? Just remember, it's dead." She then walked back to the truck and started the machine again. Dandy was pulled up onto the truck and dumped with the other dead things. The wild woman shut the back door, gave Mrs. Beasley a bill, and left for the rendering plant.
That was the end of my story.
I asked Bud if he knew that wild woman. Did she work for his father or another removal company? Bud did not think she worked for his father, and also he felt she handled the whole situation badly. "You have to take into consideration that when you go pick up a horse that the owner has had for 25 years, it's not just a horse out there in the field, it's a family member. When the horse is dying of whatever, the woman who owns the horse is extremely upset, she's sometimes crying. Just like any family member—when they die, the rest of the family is upset. You have to be sensitive and walk up, give them a hug, and say, 'I'm sorry your horse is being put down.' And make sure they're not gonna watch you load the animal into the truck. I tell them to go into the house for 10 to 15 minutes, and I load the animal up. Then I knock on the back door, give the lady another hug, and tell her you're sorry her horse died and wish her luck—and then off to the next call. Like I said, you have to be sensitive, because you're dealing with people's emotions and people's family members."
The year Dandy died, Cindy the elephant was still alive, still beating up on her keepers. It was also the year the Republicans made their Contract with America and took control of Congress. The following year, Angel lost his mind. He began bucking out the boards of the corral and escaping into the neighborhood. Misty morning after misty morning, people in the area would rise and see the most ghostly thing: a white horse running down the street. Where was it going? Who was it looking for? Angel always failed to find Margo or Dandy. And I would find him not far from the Beasley home, bring him back to the corral, and repair the fence. Angel lived for another year.