My friend Ken had just arrived from India, where he was a guest of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The Fund is working with the Wildlife Trust of India, working to save the Asian Elephants from poaching and abuse.
He told a story that is disturbing, both for what it says about the poachers and what it says about ourselves.
Most of us have seen elephants at the zoo or the circus. If we travel to India or Thailand we might ride atop one.
These elephants are tame, or at least they appear to be. But as Ken says, “There is no such thing as a tame elephant. It is never tame. It is only just afraid because it has been beaten and tortured.”
If you get squeamish about these things, don’t read on.
Elephants, Ken says, are taken at four years old from their mothers. That is the age when they are no bigger than we are and can be fed with a milk bottle.
“They are tied alongside other working elephants, attached to a wooden frame between two tree trunks, unable to move,” he goes on. “For a week, they are beaten with baseball bats and a device called an elephant hook.”
When the calf, driven by fear and thirst, gives up hope he is taken to the river and allowed to eat and bathe. But he is still tied tightly to another working elephant. Only after weeks of this torture is the animal allowed to move alone, still shackled but thoroughly passive.
Now the elephant is ready to be sent to the zoos or circuses or tourist meccas that have ordered them. Here he may be subjected to still further cruelty, learning to stand on his hind legs, for example, probably after being beaten with the elephant hook.
In the wild, elephants live to 60-70 years old. In captivity, they are lucky to reach 40. In European zoos, half of all elephants die before 20. Disease or muscular degeneration claims them before their time. Their numbers are dwindling. 30,000 Asian elephants survive from a total of 200,000 a quarter century ago.
The groups Ken has been working with are trying to protect the animals from their fiercest predators: mankind. He visited a rescue center in India where the animals are reintroduced into the wild.
But is it effective to punish the poachers who are simply responding to demand? Or should the focus be on the ultimate customers: the zoos and the circuses that order the beaten animals in the first place, for our enjoyment?
I can hear the zookeepers protesting.
“Look,” they say, trumpeting in unison like a herd of elephants, “We are providing an educational experience for our visitors. Think of the children who get to observe the animals. How elitist to limit the joy of seeing these great creatures to wealthy tourists who can afford to travel to Africa or Asia on expensive safaris.”
No doubt we have all been enriched by seeing animals in captivity. Since the London zoo in Regent’s Park was first established for scientific research and later opened to the public in 1847, millions of people have been able to experience first hand some of nature’s most astonishing creatures. And not just in London: Thousands of cities around the globe introduced their own zoos.
But the first zoos were created in a different age. Just as animals were captured and dragged back to the great cities, so were people enslaved. The mentally ill were hidden from sight. Prisoners were routinely starved and tortured. Children were exploited in factories. Women were denied the vote and in many places abused with no legal recourse.
How can we observe wild animals in captivity and not be a party to the outrageous abuse that brought them here?
Views change. Cultures evolve. The commonplace becomes rare and the accepted becomes unacceptable.
Sure our lives are enriched by watching tame elephants through the bars of a zoo. But imagine how much more we might be enriched if we were to stand outside an empty cage and read this inscription:
“Here stood an example of the species Elephas maximus, of the family Elephantidae, known popularly as an Asian Elephant. Members of the species can now be found roaming from India to Borneo.
“For many years your zoo displayed an Asian Elephant for your enjoyment. However, in 2012, as visitors boycotted the zoo to protest the inhumane treatment of elephants both before and during their tenure here, the trustees returned the Asian Elephant to the wild and determined never to condone the torture of animals for the sake of public display.
“We trust you will take a moment to watch videos of the Asian Elephant in the wild and take comfort in the knowledge that members of the species are living out their years in the environment in which they were born.”