Israel Zoo Uses Lull in Gaza Tension to Celebrate 7-ton Birthday Boy

Yossi, the world's largest African elephant in captivity, celebrates his 40th with spa treatment and copious amounts of fruit, branches and hay.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: The elephant’s section of the Ramat Gan Safari

Time: 9 A.M.

In the neighborhood: Zebras, rhinos, antelopes saunter in packs along the winding road cutting through the safari’s grounds, as the sun rises higher in the sky in what would be a real scorcher of a day. Above the cement walls bordering the grounds, two new high-rises are being built just beyond a road sign directing traffic to nearby Tel Aviv.

Venue: A wide, walled-in half-circle, with a modern dirt floor, dotted by hay, branches and neat piles of dung.

Simcha: Yossi the elephant’s 40th birthday.

Number of guests: 1

A brief history of time: Yossi, the world’s largest African elephant in captivity, weighing in at around 7 tons, was born to mother Ba’ati, who continues to live in a pen nearby, and dad Timbo, who passed away a few years ago; both arrived in Israel via an elephant ranch in Africa. The Safari’s first homegrown mega-mammal, Yossi has enjoyed the love and adoration of generations of visitors and staff, also creating quite a respectable output of offspring. Says Sagit, the zoo's spokeswoman and official Yossi fan: “He has children in almost every zoo in the world.”

However, Yossi’s pristine reputation was somewhat blemished in 2007, when a spat with a female roommate ended in her unfortunate death. Since then, for safety reasons, he's been kept away from the rest of the pack, getting a bachelor’s pad of his own. Sagit: “It was all over the papers. One headline read: ‘The Safari killer!’”

Very careful to maintain the old guy’s positive image, and bent on drawing the celebratory crowd he deserves, the Safari decided to postpone Yossi’s bash until after the fighting in Gaza began to subside since, as Sagit says, no one was really in any mood for a party: “What was I to do? Say ‘congratulations’ when there are soldiers getting killed?”

Rites: Strutting his stuff all over his yard, Yossi, a towering presence, slowly eats up the words “Mazal Tov” written in carobs, and arranged by the staff. Over at a small hill overlooking the stoically joyous beast, a group of kids from the Safari’s summer camp cheer and sing “Happy Birthday to You” over a portable PA system.

Yossi the elephant receiving massage therapy on his 40th birthday. August 11, 2014. Photo by Gil Cohen Magen

As the kids bounce around and sing, their colorful hats protecting their faces from the sun, Yossi lazily picks up his treats with his weathered trunk. A sizeable stream of urine momentarily erupts, the kids’ singing dies out and the birthday boy is left to his own devices.

Next on the day's spa schedule, Yossi gets another dose of treats from trainer Gali, and a little later a nice cool shower from caretaker Guy. Yossi happily opens his huge mouth to get in on the wet fun, enjoying a double stream of water from both Guy and Gali simultaneously (Gali, smiling: “We call this part the ‘car wash’”).

A small crowd of families – mostly religious people enjoying their yearly bein hazmanim vacation (when yeshiva students get a much-needed break from their Torah studies) – huddle around the fence, smiling as Yossi performs the 7-ton frolick in the water. In the background, music is blasting from a little production of "The Jungle Book" going on nearby.

Later, it’s time for Yossi’s periodical pedicure: Guy, Gali, and Guy #2 treat the huge b-day boy to buckets of treats while taking care of his nails using metal tools that remind onlookers of something a person would normally use to escape prison. Yossi, for his part, is loving his time in the shade, gargling with pleasure throughout his pedicure and brief foot massage, courtesy of caretaker Yael (“Even the men I date don’t get this treatment!”).

Mom Ba’ati tiredly looks on, through a nearby fence, making sure her boy is all right.

Yossi the elephant eating on his 40th birthday. August 11, 2014. Photo by Gil Cohen Magen

Finally, as Yossi enjoys his massage, caretakers sneak in a special “birthday cake” fruit arrangement, including apples, grapes, a watermelon, a pineapple and some peaches, which the birthday boy gorges on, to the delight of the families huddled above.

Music: Birthday songs, and songs from the Jungle Book musical.

Food: Branches, hay and assorted fruit.

Drink: Water.

Word in the ear: Sagit, on the growing opposition to zoos among an upsurge of veganism and growing environmental awareness: “If there wasn’t any hunting, if there were wonderful places for animals in nature where man doesn’t encroach on their habitats – then we wouldn’t need zoos.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: That no matter what they write about you in the paper, you’re set as long as you have a few nice people who believe in you. And have a lot, and I mean a lot, of fruit.

Random quote: One camper yells out distraughtly at Yossi: “Why did you murder someone?” A young counsellor, taking the sad camper gently by the arm says: “It happens. Cain murdered Able too.”

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Yossi the elephant's 40th birthday. August 11, 2014.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen

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