The Travails of Youth or, When a “V” is Pronounced Like an “N”

This week, two stories from my archive about the problems juveniles present for those of us who are – theoretically – adults. The first originally appeared in November of 1999. The second comes from August of 2000 and is included here because my son Andrew is off to his second year of college and won’t be around to read this item.

Item #1: The short form of the story goes like this: faced with a series of brutal murders, authorities determined a member (or members) of a roving gang was responsible. Four murders were directly attributable to the gang and they were suspected in six other murders. The victims, while certainly not defenseless, were always isolated individuals, more often than not females.

With a growing threat to the innocent, authorities eventually cornered three of the gang (suspected largely on circumstantial evidence of being the murderers), and executed all three. While no one can be certain that these three were responsible for the murders, their death also brought an end to the killing spree.

If this sounds like another gang-related story from one of America’s metropolitan areas, you’re right. The long story, however, is different while being eerily similar to those headlines that leap at us seemingly every day.

The murders referred to above occurred on the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in Southern Africa. The victims were all white rhinos. The murderers, beyond doubt (at least in four of the murders) were elephants. What baffled authorities, and in many ways still confounds them, is why the elephants were killing the rhinos. This simply isn’t normal behavior for an elephant.

Experts on elephant behavior hypothesize that the murderous behavior may be a direct result of man’s meddling with nature, though the intentions, in this instance, were honorable.

Back in the late 1970s, Pilanesberg was part of a plan to restock animals. A portion of this plan involved the relocation of baby elephants that would have been killed in other parks (as part of the annual cull to keep elephant herds manageable). Two adult females were also relocated to tend the babies.

It is part of normal elephant behavior for mothers to drive males out of the herd once they reach adulthood. About the age of 14, 15, or 16, these young males leave the herd, eventually joining up with other groups of males under the leadership of a patriarch.

Maybe you’ve already guessed the problem in Pilanesberg. You see, man relocated adult females to tend to the babies, but never thought to transplant males to show the young males the ropes and keep them in line. The result, in Pilanesberg, are groups of juvenile delinquent bull elephants running about the reserve with hormones and an attitude, terrorizing everything that is smaller than they are (which, when you are an elephant, is everything).

As Greg Stuart-Hill, the area’s chief ecologist, stated, “There are no adult bulls around to keep them in check. So they’re highly aggressive and are testing their strength on other animals.”

After reading about this story, several thoughts crossed my mind. First off, if elephant experts knew that young males required adult male supervision, why were no adult males relocated to Pilanesberg? Were they uncertain about this requirement and decided to chance it? If so, did anyone consult the rhino experts on the wisdom of this risk-taking?

Secondly, of course, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between these events and the problems sociologists and criminologists attribute to mankind’s own crisis with juvenile delinquency and gangs. When you consider the situation in its simplest terms it is perhaps evidence that man is not as highly evolved as we would like to believe. Either that or elephants, to their own misfortune, are more highly evolved than we suspected.

Whatever the case, the tragic series of events in Pilanesberg certainly prove the veracity of that old elephant adage, “Spare the tusk and spoil the child.”

Item #2: My young roommate and best buddy, Andrew, is six-years-old. For those who have never had a six-year-old around the house, or just don’t remember, let me tell you that one of the chief characteristics of being six is that grown-ups are usually wrong.

This characteristic shouldn’t be confused with a similar condition during the teenage years. During the teenage years, they are convinced you are wrong but they don’t want to talk about it with you. At six years of age, they are convinced you are wrong and they won’t stop talking to you about it.

So tonight, after playing a few lawn games, Barb begins making dinner and I set about feeding the cats. I serve Zooey (our outdoor cat named after a character in a J.D. Salinger novel) some Seafood Supreme and decide that Oliver Twist (our indoor cat who, like the Dickens character, was a wayward orphan Andrew brought home from the Patio Restaurant a few years back) should have some Tender Vittles.

“They’re Tender Nipples,” Andrew says.

“They are not Tender Nipples,” I reply with a serious tone a voice. “They are Tender Vittles.”





“What are you two arguing about now?” Barb interjects.

“Andrew thinks these,” I reply, holding up the box for Barb to see, “are called Tender Nipples.”

Barb, in a remarkable display of calm and rational explanation, points out to Andrew that the second word of the name begins with the letter “V” not “N,” therefore the word cannot be “Nipples.”

“Unhunh,” Andrews replies, with all the indignation and earnestness he can muster. “They just pronounce it Nipples.”

I start to reply, but Barb strongly suggests that I drop the subject.

“Fine,” I respond to my wife, “but I just want it on the record now that I am not buying cat food with him until he figures out what these are called!”

Ah, Sunday afternoons with the family, when you can argue over the correct pronunciation for the name of a moist cat food brand! This is why we work all week.