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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 29, 2010

The fate and the future of elephants are in human hands

Illustration by Forest Byrd

This is an editorial that has more questions than answers. It’s about elephants.

The circus arrives in Albany on May 6 and protesters who believe elephants should remain in the wild plan to demonstrate.

“People are starting to open their eyes to the beatings and torture used in the training,” one protester told our reporter, Philippa Stasiuk.

The protests are part of a worldwide movement: Sixteen American municipalities have outlawed animal acts in circuses, and England is the eighth country to outlaw live animals in circuses. Albany has a bill pending that would ban wild or exotic animals in the city.

The Ambroseli Trust for Elephants, based in Kenya, issued a blanket statement in 2007 on the use of elephants in circuses. The trust is headed by Cynthia Moss, an American, who is to African elephants what Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees.

“We believe that such intelligent, socially complex and long-lived animals should be treated with respect and empathy,” writes Moss. “An elephant’s place is in the wild with its relatives and companions. The totally unnatural existence of captive elephants in a circus, which includes significant physical and emotional suffering, is a travesty. To allow this practice to continue is unjustified and unethical.”

All of us can agree that an elephant, or any other animal for that matter, should not be abused. Animals should not be beaten and tortured as the protester said.

But the larger question lies in Moss’s phrase, “An elephant’s place is in the wild with its relatives and companions.”

Can an elephant be domesticated like a dog or horse? Can elephants live healthy lives with humans, not in the wild? In India, for example, elephants have worked with people since the first millennium, B.C.

We have a dog that we believe is happy living with us. He does not forage for his own food; we feed him a diet of kibbles designed for his size and breed. He does not have the freedom of the coyotes he hears howling outside of our house at night. He does not travel in a pack. He sees the humans around him as his pack. In short, he is domesticated.

We called the Wildlife Health Center at the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine to try to find some answers. We spoke to Dr. George Killias who has worked with elephants for 30 years.

We asked him if elephants in captivity could have a happy life.

He warned us against anthropomorphism.

We liked the late Vicki Hearne, a writer who trained animals and saw human traits in pets. She wrote in 1984: “These days, there is a rule among scientists against attributing human traits to animals. There used to be a rule against attributing human traits to God. So, though the definition of anthropomorphism has changed, its role as a buttress supporting the intellectual establishment’s fondest superstitions has remained the same.”

We did not pursue this with Dr. Killias but, rather, rephrased our question: Can elephants in captivity lead a healthy life?

“It really depends on who you ask and how you define healthy,” he said. “Most protesters are of the opinion that, unless they’re in a group or a herd with the same situation as in the wild, they are not leading a good life. That’s debatable.”

He went on, “I’ve definitely had experiences with elephants who really liked being around people, and with elephants that don’t…They have been domesticated in India and Sri Lanka.”

Asked if elephants suffer more diseases or have a shorter lifespan in captivity, Dr. Kollias again said it depended on the situation. Elephants in the wild have a very high infant mortality rate, he said, and they are often poached, killed by land mines, or killed by farmers. “They are still culled in some parts of Africa where the population is too high,” he said.

The oldest elephant Dr. Kollias ever saw was a captive bull in Taiwan that was nearly 80 years old.

While elephants in captivity typically live 50 to 70 years, their lifespan in the wild is highly variable, Dr. Kollias said. “It depends on where they are, the population density, the conflicts, the pressures of human development — you can’t generalize,” he said.

Asked about the pitfalls of training, Dr. Kollias said, “Trainers would say a lot of their ‘tricks’ are what they do naturally — picking things up, lying down, rolling over. They don’t stand on their hind legs naturally,” he said.

In the last two decades, the United States Department of Agriculture has increased its regulations on the handling of captive elephants, he said.

He went on to say elephants in captivity that are not trained can be dangerous. From a vet’s perspective, he said, a trained elephant can often get life-saving treatment without an anesthetic. Some elephants needing treatment would have died if they hadn’t been trained, he said.

Asked if the diet for captive elephants is unhealthy or caused digestive problems for elephants, Kollias said, “There are carefully prepared diet plans and foraging can be encouraged, too.”

While he said elephant feet are not meant for concrete, if elephants stand or walk on an “appropriate substrate, their feet are fine.”

Asked if it is harmful to use bull hooks on elephants, Kollias said, “It depends on the technique. Elephants have really sensitive skin. Charts show you where to put it. You touch them softly and they respond. I’m sure it could be abused, but, if it’s used properly, it’s a guide. It’s less aggressive than a twitch on a horse.”

Dr. Kollias has never worked for Ringling Brothers but says the circus has one of the most successful breeding programs in the country.

One of the people to respond to Dr. Moss’s statement on the use of elephants in circuses was J. D. Craigmile who said she was born and raised in a family that trained animals for movies and had worked with elephants in captivity for over 23 years.

“I, for one, would let my ladies loose, be it in the Windham Ski Lodge mountains, or in the ocean at Coos Bay, or to play in the snow of Donner Pass,” she said. “We maintained a winter quarters with a pond, and large area for exercise, plus would weekly take the ladies for walks into the wooded areas around our place. I would often let the ladies loose, to mud bathe, scratch on trees, run around and trumpet, and eat fresh fodder. I trusted my ladies, then they trusted me.”

She went on, “My ladies were healthy vibrant and extremely intelligent elephants, investigating their surroundings (and often causing me to practice repair skills) and were generally content it seemed. Everyone had their place in the pecking order (I was somewhere below the lead elephant, Zola) and accepted as a member of the family.”

She does not believe all elephant trainers should be painted with the same brush

She also believes “having viable new bloodlines, and genetic material should be maintained in a sensitive and stimulating environment, and for this material to be available to the wild cousins is important.”

We believe there are probably trainers who treat their animals well and trainers who don’t. There should be enforceable legislation to protect the animals that are being abused. We admire those like Scott Blais who has dedicated his life to providing a sanctuary for old, unwanted elephants.

While we’re not prepared to make a blanket condemnation of keeping elephants in captivity, we certainly applaud circuses like the Zoppé Circus that comes to the Altamont Fair each year and features skilled humans along with trained dogs and horses as a form of wholesome entertainment.

We also believe that, living in an age where the world has gotten smaller, our children will be easily able to see films of animals in the wild if preservation efforts are made to sustain them. We encourage contributions to groups like the Amboseli Trust for Elephants that works to both study the elephant and preserve its natural environment.

There are only about 600,000 African elephants left and only about 60,000 Asian elephants — about 15,000 of those are domesticated. The real tragedy would be if there were no elephants at all.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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