Head of School’s Notebook: Kaavan

December 4, 2020

December 5 is an auspicious day at Cate, the anniversary of our founder’s birth 136 years ago. No doubt Curtis Cate had no idea in those fateful days of 1910 of the scale of the enterprise he was beginning, of his school’s potential impact and its endurance. Likely he was thinking instead of the students he might educate and the lives he might help them build. The generosity of his commitment stands out, at least for me.

It’s why, too, I found myself captivated earlier this week by a story containing the very spirit I imagine in Mr. Cate. This one isn’t about students, though, but an elephant named Kaavan who was given to Pakistan by the government of Sri Lanka in 1985. Kaavan was a year old at the time and has lived in the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad ever since. For a portion of that time Kaavan had a companion named Saheli, but she died of infection nearly a decade ago. NPR did a story on Kaavan recently entitled, “The Loneliest Elephant.”

It’s a saga full of hardship and neglect. Kaavan has not been treated well. But his future looks remarkably bright. A combination of non-profit organizations and an unlikely celebrity, Cher, took up Kaavan’s case several years ago and appealed it all the way to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, who ultimately ordered the elephant’s release from the condemned zoo.

On Sunday, thanks to a massive effort by philanthropists, animal rights activists, veterinarians, and assorted charitable entities, Kaavan will board a plane for a ten-hour flight to an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia. For three months a team of doctors and animal experts have been working with Kaavan to prepare him for the unprecedented flight, the first ever attempted with an elephant on board. Kaavan weighs five tons.

Said a spokesman for the project, “It’s the best hope for him … the goal is to bring him together with other animals because that’s what elephants want.”

How far will we go for hope? Particularly if it means we might be able give someone … or some elephant … what they want or need or deserve? It is the very intention that impels the best in people, to come to the aid of those who need us.

Even as this pandemic has separated families and friends, it hasn’t driven from human beings that fundamental kindness and unselfishness that leads us to respond to another living thing in distress. While it is easy to find ourselves distracted by the less appealing virtues of our species, we can’t help but encounter interventions like the ones made on behalf of Kaavan and we realize again that there is something wonderfully and perhaps even irresponsibly generous about human beings.

It is what makes any community of people—including our own—great and kind and worthy. That we, too, are the beneficiaries ultimately of our own need to help others.

Like that great line—the last line, actually—of Guterson’s tragic love story, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Accident rules every corner of the universe, except the chambers of the human heart.”

If love is indeed our tragic flaw, so be it. What else could possibly bring out the most fundamental and unselfish elements of our nature? Just ask Kaavan, the victim for much of his life of the worst in mankind, but the beneficiary ultimately of the best.

There is a lesson in that story and a reminder, on the day we celebrate Cate’s founding, that the most meaningful gestures of mankind are those offered in service beyond ourselves. If we stand for anything as a school community, as fellow human beings, or as custodians of this planet and its populations, it is to give the best of ourselves to each other.

That is how we ensure that our future, like Kaavan’s, remains bright. Servons.