On May 28th, 2019, to my amazement I published a book. The title I settled on was Power and Majesty: The Plight and Preservation of the African Elephant. It’s a somewhat large, table-top kind of book, crammed full of 109 photographs I’ve taken, facts and observations I’ve collected, quotations from notable people, and the essence of what life is like for elephants in Africa today. The path I traveled to create the book was unique and a story in itself.
I’ve always loved animals, oftentimes much, much more than I’ve loved my own species. One of my earliest memories in life is of a fascination with butterflies. As a toddler, I’d watch the beautiful swallowtails and monarchs when they’d drift into my mom’s flower garden and I’d try to follow them when the breeze took them elsewhere. As time went by, my childhood home always included rescued animals of one kind or another.
It was as an adult, when I learned of the horrific fate of many of Yellowstone Park’s iconic buffalo, that I felt compelled to do something on behalf of animals on a larger scale. Fortunately for me, other humans in the know had also been moved to take action at the same time, forming the one and only conservation group dedicated to saving Yellowstone’s buffalo. As their efforts grew, so did mine.
But years passed, and I was still largely distracted by my career and social life. As a successful professional actor, there is no halfway, there is no part-time. When I wasn’t performing or auditioning, I was marketing and interacting with my managers and talent agents. Along with the relationships in my life, acting consumed not only all my time but most all of my energy. At the height of my career, I became completely disconnected from my passion for the welfare of animals altogether. I just couldn’t do it all. But then, within the span of just a few days, a major shift took place in how I viewed the world and my life in it. To borrow a term, I became born again.
As I approached the thirty-year mark of my acting career, I’d become increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of Hollywood movies and television. Despite all that I’d invested and achieved, I felt distinctly unfulfilled. Was I wasting my life? But through all those years as a student of humanity, which an actor must be, I had also gained a few lasting qualities: the ability to discern a meaningful moment, the ability to capture such a moment on camera, and a cultivated ability to write.
While the radical change in focus for my life may appear to have been inevitable and the result of a long, slow burn, there was in fact a singular pivot point: October 4th, 2013. During the week prior, I had stumbled across a small article in the local newspaper noting that the local zoo was endorsing the First Global March for Elephants. It’s beyond me to this day why I decided to attend this march. I had never protested in public against anything in my life. On my own, I ventured to San Francisco and joined over one thousand other people who somehow were similarly compelled.
As the march progressed, so did my feelings. We weren’t the only people marching for elephants on this day. A dozen other major cities in the world witnessed similar marches. The magnitude of the event took hold in my mind. Meanwhile, in my heart, I was moved to tears as I marched, realizing that this was the first time in human history that a global event had taken place on behalf of the welfare of another species, the elephant. I thought of the millions of elephants who had been hunted down and killed, their lives taken from them just so mankind could have ivory.
In the days and weeks following the march, I learned all I could about elephants and the horrible things that humans do to them. Little by little, I began turning my social media platforms from supporting my career in entertainment to supporting the welfare of elephants. My voice grew loud and strong. I joined the organizing committee for the second and third annual marches in San Francisco. I shared my newfound knowledge with anyone who’d listen, from the person in line behind me at the grocery store to my neighbors who I’d pass on the street. I was sad and I was angry. An injustice had been underway for centuries, an injustice no more minor in importance than any injustice that takes place between groups of humans.
Then, my path came to a crossroads. I was invited to come to Washington D.C. to speak about elephants. My first reaction was one of gratitude for the recognition and opportunity. My second reaction was the acknowledgement that I was thoroughly unqualified to be doing what I was doing all together. For hours and hours, I withdrew. In my spare moments, I pondered going back to school to earn a graduate degree in biology, a path I actually took later on for a while at respected Johns Hopkins University. I even considered backing away from the priority that I’d given elephants in my life. But by the end of the day following the invitation, I determined that I’d go to Africa for the first time in my life and learn first-hand about elephants and the humans who interact with them.
I’ll never forget that first morning in Kenya, the sight of the first elephant I’d see in the wild. And needless to say, that first trip and the numerous trips that followed only demonstrated the age-old recognition that the more you know, the more there is to find out. Beginning with that first trip, I photographed elephants until I was out of breath. I witnessed them eating, sleeping, playing, having sex, fighting, and above all, caring for each other.
I shared the best photos on my social media outlets and began adding a brief paragraph describing the moment or a related observation. Appreciative and loving viewers began commenting that I ought to create a book. It’s with a gratitude that I’ll carry for the rest of my life for these people that I began to take the creation of a book seriously. Then, once I had committed to the idea, I had to return to Africa for several more months so as to make my pictorial and fact-finding survey complete. In the end, I visited 10 countries, photographed and studied the savanna elephants, the forest elephants, and the desert-adapted elephants. It became a defining project of my lifetime. And the journey continues.
Today, I’m deep in the early stages of my second book, this one dedicated to uncovering and sharing the plight of the Asian elephant. As I gather the photographs and immerse myself in research, I’m again reminded of how human beings have abused or neglected our place as the most powerful species on the planet. As I move forward, this injustice combined with the endless beauty I see in elephants fills my heart with a resolve to do all I can to improve the welfare of the remaining elephants we humans are so fortunate to share life with on this earth.
Featured image: two adult African elephants look on as two juveniles play. Image credit Larry Laverty.