By David Shapiro
Visits to the Honolulu Zoo with my 6-year-old grandson Corwin revolve around the Elephant Encounter with Indian pachyderms Mari and Vaigai.
These gentle behemoths, who always seem to be smiling, fire a child's imagination like no other animal.
Corwin can't get enough of watching the six-ton Mari and the four-ton Vaigai swing their trunks, swish their tails, flap their ears and throw dirt on their backs to protect themselves from sunburn.
The elephants don't like to be separated, even by small barriers, and are seldom far apart.
At the encounter area, Mari and Vaigai are brought out once a day to get personal with zoo visitors. Children line the fence to touch an elephant's trunk and contribute a carrot to the 150 pounds of food each elephant eats daily. Many an adult will push to the front for a better look at the zoo's most popular attractions.
Corwin is thirsty by the time we're finished and buys his juice in an elephant-shaped plastic container. It wouldn't be a real zoo without them.
So I hated to tell him about news reports that the zoo is in danger of losing Mari and Vaigai because work is stalled on a larger enclosure to enable the zoo to bring in a bull elephant to breed its two females.
Bids are $6 million over the money available for the $13 million project.
Since Indian elephants are endangered, the zoo has an ethical obligation to breed Mari and Vaigai and extend their lines. The permit that brought Vaigai to Hawai'i required that she be bred. If it can't be done here, the zoo will have to ship them somewhere else where it can.
Vaigai, at age 16, is in her breeding prime. Mari is closer to the end of her breeding life at 27.
This is not to say the threat of losing the elephants is imminent. There's plenty of time to solve the problem.
But neither should we dismiss it as something that could never happen. Who would have believed we'd end up shipping Rusti the orangutan to Florida after all the broken promises to find a suitable home for him in Hawai'i?
Corwin's face fell sad and he needed serious comforting when I gave him the news. He shook his head "no" emphatically when I asked if he would still want to visit the zoo if the elephants were gone.
Then he got the piggie bank he's been filling for years with pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters to buy himself something special. He handed me a small business envelop in which to stuff five pounds of coins to send the zoo to save the elephants. Corwin went to the supermarket to convert the coins to $48 in currency that would fit in his envelop.
Contributions earmarked for the new elephant enclosure can be sent to the Honolulu Zoo Society, 151 Kapahulu Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96815.
But unfortunately, this project is so far from the needed funding that the nickels and dimes of heartbroken children won't get it done.
You know what could have paid for it? The cost overruns from the new Hanauma Bay visitors center and the Waipi'o soccer park. Or the excess design, engineering and construction fees the government pays for public projects, so contractors can reciprocate with generous political donations.
The elephant dilemma brings perspective to the true cost of persistent reports of corruption, waste and incompetence in spending public money. Indirectly, these are all responsible for putting a very long face on my very small boy.
And it ticks me off.
David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.