A tale of loss, redemption and elephants
Debbie Ethell has stories to tell. She has stories to tell about elephants, alcoholism and hope, and writes well about all three.
"Storytelling is a powerful teaching tool," she said. "I wrote my book to share my experiences of love for elephants and to raise awareness about elephants. But I also wanted to show readers what addiction looks like, to put a face on it, as it is never too late to change."
Ethell's book, "The Will of Heaven: An Inspiring True Story about Elephants, Alcoholism and Hope" is the true story of how she overcame debilitating addiction to become a conservation research scientist, fulfilling her lifelong dream of working with wild elephants.
Previous articles have appeared in The Lake Oswego Review and West Linn Tidings about Ethell's love of elephants, and her addiction to alcohol, which nearly cost her everything.
As an 8-year-old she became obsessed with a group of elephants after viewing a PBS nature show. She said her obsession grew over the years, until ridicule from a group of school bullies left her contemplating suicide. As a teenager she started getting into trouble early.
"I started using alcohol and drugs when I was 12 years old," Ethell told reporter Cliff Newell in a previous interview. "By the age of 18, I was heavily addicted. I knew more judges than I had friends. I literally lost everything."
Horrible things happened to her: Like starting a fight that ended up breaking her leg in five places; expulsion from school; blacking out while driving and smashing into trees and other solid objects.
"It's a miracle I didn't kill anybody," she said. At times she lived in her car in the parking lot of a gas station in California, her mind in a twilight zone. She was so out of it, she said, "I didn't even know I was homeless."
She told Newell the worst thing she did was waste her potential. But that all changed Dec. 23, 1998.
"That was the biggest day of my life," Ethell said. "The old me died. The new me was born."
She entered a treatment center and then a halfway house where she slowly learned how to live a sober life. Then she decided to go to college.
"I told a friend, 'I'll be 40 years old when I graduate!" she said. "She said, 'How old will you be if you don't go to college?' That was the best thing anyone ever said to me. I wasn't 40 when I graduated. I was 41."
Ethell graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA from Portland State University and earned a degree in science. She was ready to pursue what a higher power always seemed to be intending for her life — saving elephants.
Ethell began researching the elephant herd she had been enthralled with as a child, with the intention of presenting it to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Africa.
It was a leap of faith, because Ethell took the money she'd been saving to buy a car and used it to get a plane ticket to Nairobi.
Sheer persistence won her a meeting with Angela Sheldrick, daughter of trust founders David and Daphne Sheldrick, who was absolutely floored by the amount of research Ethell had done. Sheldrick was so impressed that she let Ethell go deep into the heart of Kenya to meet her elephant friends in person for the first time.
A year later she founded KOTA (Keepers of the Ark) Foundation for Elephants, to prevent elephants from becoming extinct.
Through KOTA she developed The Secret Lives of Elephants, an educational program, which proved popular with area school children. She believes the more people learn about elephants, the more likely they will be to take action to save them.
"Elephants resemble us in so many ways," Ethell said. "We've only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding them. Elephants make bonds that last for life. They have complex emotions. Their power to forgive is staggering. Elephants really have the greatest qualities of the greatest human being you know."
Ethell wrote "The Will of Heaven" as a means to show the similarities between elephants and humans. The book intertwines her life as an addict with those of the elephants she is working to save.
"Addiction is killing as many people as poaching is killing elephants," she said. "I will do anything to shed the stigma on alcoholism."
She shared a story of a baby elephant who, as a result of a brain injury caused by a poacher, walked in circles. The other elephants helped the injured one walk straight by leaning into her to guide her.
"Elephants are constant sources of inspiration, hope and courage," Ethell said. "They helped her back (to health); she wouldn't have made it without their help, just as I wouldn't have made it. The behavior of elephants is beyond extraordinary."
Ethell says the book "vividly captures her serendipitous journey as she discovers an inner strength" — not unlike that of the elephants whose stories she tells.
Part biography, part revelation, this story will inspire others to reach further than they ever thought they could. Above all, it conveys a strong message of hope, both for the elephants fighting to survive poaching and for alcoholics fighting to survive addiction."
"This is a lifelong mission for me," she said. "Whether it takes six months or 30 years I'll keep going down this road. This is a passion project."
Ethell will give an update on KOTA and her new book at the Lake Oswego Women's Coalition luncheon taking place at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at The Stafford, 1200 Overlook Drive, Lake Oswego. Those wishing to attend should call 503-479-2374. Lunch fee is $18 for members, $20 for non-members.
She also will speak at 7 p.m. Oct. 30 at Broadway Books, 1714 N.E. Broadway, Portland.
Other speaking engagements include:2:30 to 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 7 at the Peregrine Group at Stickmen's Brewery, 40 State St., Lake Oswego. Free. 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 23 with an Elephant Presentation and book signing at the Oregon City Library, 606 John Adams St., Oregon City. Free. 6 to 8 p.m., Jan. 12, 19 and 26. Enjoy a three-part lecture series in which every evening is an entirely different lecture about elephants and their behavior, the law, ivory at Lake Theater and Cafe, 106 N. State St., Lake Oswego.
Ethell is available for speaking engagements and welcomes contact through kotafoundation.org. Books can also be purchased on the website.
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