STEPHEN AND JAN SMITH Love of wildlife leads attorney to make new friends Steve Smith, a partner with Indianapolisbased law firm Krieg DeVault LLP, and his wife Jan, a former grade school teacher, are the proud parents of two children-Nick, 20, and Sarah, 25. They are also foster parents of little Wendi, an orphan from Kenya.
But Wendi isn't your typical toddler. Weighing in at birth at nearly 200 pounds, Wendi is an African elephant-one of dozens that have been rescued by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Dame Daphne Sheldrick started the trust in 1977 in memory of her late husband David, a famous British naturalist and Africa's leading crusader against poaching.
The road to "parenthood" for the Smiths came as a result of pro bono work that Steve did for his friend, Marty Moore, who operates a school in Kenya through his family foundation.
It was on a visit to the school that Steve was introduced to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. He was instantly hooked and offered to help them resolve issues related to bequests from U.S. citizens.
"If you make a contribution as a U.S. taxpayer to a foreign charity, it isn't tax deductible," Steve explained. "On the other hand, if you make a contribution to a U.S.-based charity that ... has the purpose of supporting the foreign charity, it is."
He founded the U.S. Friends of the David Sheldrick Trust and serves as the group's president.
The Friends have raised $300,000 for the Kenya trust and have a number of fundraising initiatives in the works. One involves raising nearly half a million dollars to purchase a Cessna Caravan cargo plane to use in elephant rescues. They want to outfit the plane with thermal-imaging equipment that was donated by the Metropolitan Police in London to aid in intercepting and arresting poachers who kill elephants for their ivory tusks.
Elephants, or "eles" share many similari ties with humans-including their lifespan. If left undisturbed, an elephant can live to age 70 or older.
It's said that an elephant never forgets, and it's true.
"When these orphans lose their mothers upon whom they're totally dependent, many times they simply die of grief," Steve explained. They remember the trauma of seeing their parent killed or being separated from the herd.
"Until the eles are age two, they are totally milk dependent," Jan said. The "milk" the rescuers use is a special formula that Daphne Sheldrick developed that is used throughout the world by zoos and other wildlife sanctuaries.
The lucky elephants that are rescued are cared for 24/7 by keepers who rotate throughout the orphanages so that the pachyderms don't become too emotionally dependent upon their surrogate parents.
Generally at age 10 the elephants are capable of returning to the wild-and many do. Even years after leaving the compound, some return when drought hits or to show off their offspring to their former keepers.
The Smiths are concerned about the future of African wildlife given the population explosion in Kenya that's squeezing out habitats. "Most Americans think of Africa as the Mutual of Omaha 'Wild Kingdom' image," Steve said. "I suggest if you want to see it you go now because we don't know if it will be there forever."
They're hopeful that through education-both in Kenya and in the U.S.-the tide will turn.
"Most Kenyans never see wildlife," Jan said. "It was like when I was teaching here and we would take our children on field trips. Many had never seen a cow."
Individuals can foster an orphaned elephant for only $50 a year, which pays for rescues, veterinarian bills, food and keepers' salaries. More information is available on their Web site, davidsheldrickwildlifetrust.org.
Steve and Jan Smith greet Madiba, an orphaned bull elephant at the Kenyan relocation center. When an elephant meets a new visitor, he offers up his trunk and expects the visitor to blow into it so that he'll always remember the scent.