We played with hand puppets, using all kinds of silly voices. I also loved to pretend I was a horse, holding cut-off Quaker Oats containers in my hands for hooves, galloping on all fours, bucking and neighing like a wild mustang. I have no doubt that our make-believe games had some role in shaping the future actress I was to become -- all under the watchful, loving eye of my mother.
I've been thinking lately about that formative, protected period of my childhood in the context of growing reports of another species whose young are criminally deprived of the protected and carefree play that they so vitally need to thrive, many suffering severe psychological trauma tied to the loss of their mothers at the hands of brutal poachers. I am referring to the plight of the African elephant.
Killed at the staggering rate of 35,000 animals per yea
r, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, to feed an insatiable global demand for ivory, elephants need our help. Moved by the crisis facing these majestic creatures and many more caught up in the illicit wildlife trade, President Obama last year announced
a National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking to push back on the wanton killing of innumerable iconic species threatened with extinction.
One of the President's boldest proposals was to prohibit all commercial imports and interstate commerce in elephant ivory. Many members of our Congress have suggested
that such a prohibition would unfairly pick on those who possess their ivory legally.
But a legal ivory market has existed for a long time and has not served as a check on the ivory trade; it simply enabled dealers
of new, illicit -- and virtually indistinguishable from "legal" ivory -- to launder it through sanctioned channels.
Although it is largely understood that the principal market for carved ivory is China, many Americans may be surprised to learn that the United States is the next largest consumer market
for this product. While the Obama administration would like to crack down on this trade by closing loopholes in existing U.S. laws, there are many in Washington determined to create legislative obstacles to the enforcement of the President's noble goals on this issue.
That is a terrible shame. An ancient species, elephants have inhabited our planet for 30 million years. The elephants of Central Africa, now being driven to extinction, are gardeners on a grand scale, consuming fruit and depositing seeds in a rich manure that sustains tropical forests teeming with life that in turn helps keep our Earth healthy.
I have been lucky to spend a day on a platform at the edge of a remote clearing, or bai, in Gabon -- observing forest elephant mothers and their young emerge from the jungle to partake of the mineral-rich waters. I watched the young play under the watchful eye of their highly social, self-aware, and quite evidently intelligent mothers, aunts and cousins. I observed strong social and family bonds and cherished offspring.
When mother elephants are killed, calves still dependent on their milk and love die slowly from starvation -- heartbroken and alone. This is not anthropomorphizing. It is observable fact. We know elephant family members recognize and enthusiastically greet each other. When an elephant dies, the entire community mourns. It is an unspeakably destructive arrogance that blinds us to the possibility that there are other species on this planet capable of such complex emotions.
Elephants' collective memories are passed from one generation to the next. Elephant matriarchs lead their families to protected areas in hopes of keeping them safe from poachers' bullets. Sadly, today even some of the most protected areas have been under attack from militant groups that have entered the ivory trade for the vast sums elephant tusks command on the global black market.
That is why Congress must support President Obama's ivory ban, not attempt to thwart it. How can we possibly allow the annihilation of one of Earth's most magnificent and evolved species? What kind of world values an ivory trinket higher than an elephant's life?
Elephants are a precious reminder of how magical planet Earth can be. Like my siblings and me, elephant calves should have the opportunity to grow up and thrive without fear, partaking of the wonders of life and the blessings of a loving community.