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Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 13, 2012

Camping with giants

Stanford instructor and author spends her summers observing elephants

by Angela Johnston

Caitlin O'Connell spends her summers sleeping under the vast open African skies, hanging out with Jack Nicholson, David Beckham and Prince Charles, and observing wildlife firsthand.

However, her experience is not the typical celebrity-studded summer vacation. O'Connell stays in a field camp inside a 30-foot-by-30-foot canvas enclosure in a national park in Namibia, Africa. Her gourmet meals consist of butternut squash prepared in every way imaginable; showers are rare; and Nicholson, Beckham and Prince Charles are actually bull elephants named for their distinctive features.

O'Connell is an instructor at the Stanford University School of Medicine's department of head and neck surgery. She's also an elephant specialist. In her newest book, "An Elephant's Life," she illustrates through her photos the complex lives of these African animals.

"If you don't mind roughing it, our field camp is a five-star experience," O'Connell writes in the book, which was published last November.

"An Elephant's Life" showcases years of O'Connell's observations of the magnificent creatures' lives, moment by moment, from a baby elephant's first steps to the declining dominance of a male leader. The collection of photographs shot by O'Connell and her husband Timothy Rodwell also depicts the serene beauty of Etosha National Park, where the research camp sits year-round.

"I thought in part to put this book together because it seemed like the obvious way to show people how an elephant grows up in society and what kind of challenges they face," O'Connell told the Weekly.

Neither O'Connell nor Rodwell were elephant specialists when they started their research about 15 years ago. O'Connell says they were both dedicated field scientists who happened to be in the right place at the right time when the opportunity arose.

At Stanford, O'Connell teaches science writing and researches different ways large mammals perceive sound. Before studying elephants, O'Connell researched vibration communication in insects in the Hawaiian Islands.

"When I was traveling in Africa, I noticed that elephants were behaving very similarly to the insects I studied in Hawaii. One thing led to another, and 10 years later I was able to show that elephants communicate in a very similar way," O'Connell said.

Her most fundamental discovery has been that elephants' vocalizations travel through the ground, and that they can detect and interpret them through their feet.

Sequences of photographs in the book capture intimate greetings between elephants, and the various ways elder elephants keep their young in check. One of the most emotional sets of photographs shows a mother and sister elephant rescuing an elephant calf after he fell into the watering hole.

"It was a really fulfilling experience to think about how you would tell the story of a life in images, rater than words," O'Connell said.

Although she has no formal photography training, O'Connell has become a seasoned nature photographer over the years spent observing and capturing elephants on camera. She says she has learned to overexpose her shots so she can capture the movement of the mammals at dusk.

"One of the trickiest parts is not being afraid to overexpose," O'Connell said. "It took many years of experimenting with exposure and learning on the job." Because elephants are such large creatures, O'Connell says that she sometimes has to sacrifice shutter speed for depth of field.

O'Connell remembers her first years when she and her husband photographed with film. "It took us years to get some of the film developed when we were living in Africa," she said. "With the advent of digital photography it was just so amazing."

The couple currently shoot with a Nikon D700 Digital SLR with an ISO of 6400 and a fast auto-focus lens.

"I feel very privileged to be living right on the dinner plate of all of these animals, including the lions," O'Connell said. "You get to see the soap operas of all these different creatures."

O'Connell says she sees and photographs something different, unexpected and spectacular every day. "I've had some hairy moments alone when a long, wrinkly trunk has suddenly appeared ... on more than one occasion, a dripping proboscis has practically knocked over my tripod and assaulted me with heavy breathing and bad breath, like a giant worm. ..." she wrote.

She enjoys capturing the human-like characteristics of elephants, and says it shows us that humans are not as complex as we sometimes would like to think.

"When you see another social animal acting like your own species, it's a reminder that there are other special animals and maybe we shouldn't be thinking we are as special as we are," O'Connell says. "Because there are other animals out there that care for each other and make sacrifices for each other just like humans. That kind of reminder I feel privileged just to witness."

O'Connell says she has a few more books in the works. She will be looking at the long-term social interactions and dominance relationships particularly among younger elephants, observing how family interaction translates into adulthood.

"I'm also working on a photo book of the first year of an elephant's life as well as a biography of the 'don' elephant, a sort of timeline of his rise and fall, and all the different social dynamics surrounding it," she says.

Her previous books include "The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa," a more prose-focused book on her study of the elephant's listening behavior.

Info: "An Elephant's Life" can be found at the Stanford University bookstore, where Caitlin O'Connell will sign books during parents' weekend on Feb. 24 and 25. For more about her work, go to


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