Posted by: kcullen75 | August 17, 2012


My next post was supposed to be about my time in South Africa at the Botshabelo Community. This is not it, but while I was writing that I remembered how soon after I arrived there I was asked by someone in the U.S. to contribute to an online e-book about working with elephants. The idea was that each of the twelve chapters was written by a different person who had worked closely with elephants based on a different charcter trait chosen form the list given. I chose the trait of Patience, and took a morning off at Botshabelo to write it. I’m not sure when the book will come out, but will certainly let everyone here know when it does.  As it’s about elephants, and elephants were (and still are) the reason this blog exists, I thought I would share it. So here it is:




“Come on Max!” These were the first English words that Max – or Maximus, to use his full name – learned from me. They were the words that he was to hear regularly over the five years that we lived together, day in, day out.

Max was big. The biggest, as his name suggests. Max was old, Older than the years he had lived, which were many; though we didn’t know exactly how many. And Max, like all elephants who live captive to man, was hurt. So very hurt. His body was battered and bruised from years of working for us, his long, long legs had been twisted and broken from over use, from lack of use and from a great big truck that had been rushing, like all great big trucks, to somewhere and something that it thought was important, (and surely wasn’t) and in its rush had failed to see Max walking the streets home from work. Max was important.

But it was not just his body which was hurt. It was inside, where it is most difficult for us to see, we people who live almost always on the outside, that Max had been hurt most of all. It was inside Max that the scars were the deepest.

When I first met Max he seemed lifeless. He was alive in the simple sense. He was eating – a little; breathing – softly; moving – oh so slowly; sleeping – fitfully. But being alive yet lifeless seems a common existence for the captive elephant. What is missing from a captive elephant who is alive yet lifeless you might call spirit, soul, a natural relationship to the world around them. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but if you look, truly look, you will see, you will feel that it is missing. And if you are patient and allow the elephant to show you, you will see, you will feel, that it is not missing at all. It is there, always, waiting patiently for us to see it, to feel it. This is what living with elephants has taught me.

“Come on Max!” It is five years later and still I am waiting for Max. Or so I see it. From the beginning, when I was suddenly given the task of caring for this giant, with no idea then of how to do that, I had decide that I would always wait for Max. I would always call and encourage him to where I wanted or needed him to be, which I hoped on most occasions would also be where he wanted or needed to be, and I would never “drive” or push him from behind as I saw most other mahouts doing. Max needed to go at his own pace to allow room for that spirit to come back to the fore, and I would simply have to be patient enough to give it as much space to grow as possible.

And grow it did! In those five years Max grew from a lifeless shell to a bull elephant once more interested in his surroundings, in the other elephants around him, in life and in living. And the same thing grew in me. With all my inexperience and mistakes and constant searching for a way to give Max a better day each time the sun rose, Max never once scolded me, corrected me sternly, took my hand in his trunk to show me a better way. He simply stayed eternally patient so as that by looking at and really seeing him, I could come to see it by myself. A new, better way, each and every day, because with patience, there is no end to learning. No full stop.

Max has passed away now. But his lessons still grow in me. Not just his, but all the elephants I have lived and worked with; including most recently the highly spirited young bull, Chang Yim, who has no time to allow for our patience to come to him, because he knows we should already be there. For the sake of the elephant, we have to already be there.

Why? Because time is running out for the elephant. They have walked the earth longer than we have, but for the past few short thousands of years they have walked it too closely by our side, and our chains and hooks and constant wanting of something, anything, from them has shortened their footsteps to a crawl. They have waited patiently for us to see them, to really see them, and to release them from our world of always wanting more – faster, with no time to wait for the broken and dispirited elephants like Max to catch up.

But the elephants will wait, with their eternal patience, for us to learn what we need to learn so we too can be alive, but not lifeless. Even after they have left their last footprints on the Earth, they will wait, patiently.

“Come on Karl!” I can hear Max calling to me.




  1. Wonderful Karl ! I witnessed your patience – a perfect piece for you to write about. Max and you are forever in my memory.

  2. This is so ‘you’ Karl. I can ‘see’ you and ‘hear’ you even if we are not at the Park at the moment.


  3. Really moving piece of writing. Thank you, Karl!

  4. What a lovely piece of writing. Karl you have an amazing ability to communicate very subtle feelings so clearly. Watching you and Max together it always seemed like a beautiful relationship of mutual respect. And it’s really great to be given a window into that through your writing.

    • Thanks Mike. It seems a lifetime ago now, but really in many ways, that relationship has defined my life since. I’m still in it, and I think will always be trying to understand it more and more deeply.

  5. That is really beautiful. I had the pleasure of meeting Max on my first visit and he was amazing. I admire so much what you do, and wish I had the courage and the ability to do the kind of work you do. Keep it up!

  6. Beautiful

  7. Thank you so much. We fell in love with Max in 09 and still talk about how all the young elephants would come and love all over him every day.

  8. Karl,
    That was really beautiful. Thank you for sharing with us. Max was always really dear to me and I always thought you did amazing work with him. I always counted myself lucky to have been able to see you together.

  9. Wow, this is the most beautiful piece of prose that I have read in a long time. Thank you for sharing your life changing experience.

  10. Best piece I’ve read in a long time mate. Thanks for sharing such great memories.

  11. Wow! Amazing story. Can’t wait for the book to come out.

  12. As always, you leave me all choked up. I remember early mornings with coffee in hand, watching you and Max coming along the dirt road. Max would watch you up ahead and you would watch Max. You would wait standing patiently. Sometimes you would squat down, still looking in his direction, patiently waiting, while Max seemed to be thinking about it. Whatever ‘it’ was. Max was on his own time.

  13. loved it!

  14. This is wonderful! I miss Max and BK and the others who are gone.

  15. Beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: