By ego, I mean egoism. As in: I own that elephant, she is mine. No, actually, she is not yours, nor does she belong to anyone but herself. So the idea of keeping an animal like that (of course I also believe this applies to any animal) in captivity is a crime against the nature of the elephant, and against nature herself.
When anyone tells you that an animal “loves” to be in captivity, ask them why, then, is it necessary to have fences, cages, closed spaces from which the animal cannot escape to freedom. Dogs and cats are about the only two species, among all the others, domesticated or not, who choose to stay with u
s (dogs because they are nature’s therapists and cats for mysterious reasons that nobody understands). Parrots need to have their bodies mutilated; horses kept locked in, and of course the so-called farm animals are there purely to be exploited.
One exception to all this: sanctuaries. Farm Sanctuary, Animal Place, any of the hundreds of places that take in abused animals, or unwanted animals, or injured animals, or escaped animals, and gives them a permanent home where they need never fear being exploited for their milk, their eggs, their skin, or their meat. Or, as in the case of elephants, their entertainment value (often wrongly stated as “educational value” – which always reminds me of the ridiculous notion that we learned about elephant lives by reading the accounts of the great white hunters).
I am sure that everyone who reads this blog will have seen the video (it went viral) of Bella the dog, with Tarra, the eleph
ant. If you have not seen it, here it is: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4696315n
What I loved about this sanctuary is that it was the opposite of a zoo. Not only did the elephants have woods and streams and ponds and rivers to wander through (more than 2000 acres!), the public was not cordially invited to gape and throw popcorn at the elephants (but observation cameras allowed people to view online the real lives of real elephants). They lived, for animals not in their own environment, as close to a natural life as we can ever expect to see. It was truly an inspiration. The sanctuary was for the elephants, not for us.
The cofounder of this remarkable and wonderful elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald Tennessee is Carol Buckley. From reading what she writes on her blog, and from watching her and from friends who know her well (I have never met her) I feel safe to say she knows an enormous amount about elephants, and how to keep them happy after a life where they suffered anything from beatings to solitary confinement to absolute loneliness. She formed as close a bond with Tarra, as probably any human has ever had, over the 30 years they were together.
Last year they were forcibly separated. From reasons I simply cannot fathom, not only was Carol Buckley removed as the CEO of this sanctuary, but she was forbidden to visit her old friend Tarra. I have no way of judging the merit of the case against her, but whatever it was, it makes no sense to deprive two beings as close as Tarra and Carol, of each other’s company. It is an outrage against both of them, and I find it unforgiveable.
Because Carol was one of the few people who are aware of the depths of animal suffering. The other is her colleague Gay Bradshaw. Gay is the director of the Kerulos Center in Jacksonville Oregon. She has written a book, Elephants on the Edge that has been one of the great reading experiences of my life. (I am re-reading it right now). I will not go into detail on what she found, because you need to read the book for yourself. Or at least read the fine article about her and her research that was the cover story of the New York Times Magazine a few years ago, An Elephant Crackup? by Charles Siebert http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/magazine/08elephant
Nothing I have read in the last while got me thinking on such a different level as this book did, for it raised the possibility that every time we see animals behaving in an odd fashion, that is, contrary to what we have come to expect, we should bear in mind the possibility that what we are seeing is the result of some trauma inflicted, almost invariably, by humans. So the adolescent male elephants Gay was studying had uncharacteristically raped and killed rhinos in southern Africa. Why? Because, she discovered, they had watched in horror as their mothers were murdered in front of their eyes and grew up in a society without elephant mentors, male and female. So they became bad boys, just like our bad bozys. When I heard about dolphins in San Francisco killing harbor porpoises, Gay wrote to me about how we had degraded their environment, polluted it, poisoned it, and this was the result. It makes perfect sense. Grizzlies, too. The theory has wide and far-reaching implications. It is a deep theory, and I love her for thinking of it. It has having a profound influence on many other animal scientists, all to the good.
While I cannot know what went on inside Elephant Sanctuary, I do know that those traumatized elephants cannot possibly welcome the loss of their closest human companion. It is a tragedy that the people now responsible for the Sanctuary cannot see this and cannot put the elephants before their own interests, whatever they may be. I understand that elephants can be dangerous, and that many zoos do not allow direct contact, even with the caregiver. But we have created this situation, and Carol does her best to remedy it. She was able to interact with the elephants in her sanctuary without fear and without danger, because they knew she meant them no harm. One thing is perfectly clear to me and must have been to them as well; whatever Carol did she always put the elephants first. This is no small feat in our anthropocentric world, and I salute her for it.