Elephants unchained: ‘The day has gone by when this was entertainment’
We are, as a species, generally fascinated by elephants. “We see the qualities and characteristics in elephants that we aspire to have ourselves,” says Patricia Sims, the co-founder of World Elephant Day. “Empathy, enduring family bonds, cooperation, intelligence, long memories, taking care of their environment – to name just a few.”
Some extraordinary scientific studies in the last few years have revealed just how intelligent they are. They can recognise themselves in a mirror, found scientists in 2006, one of only a few species that do this. They can have an “aha” moment to solve a puzzle, showed researchers in 2011, by witnessing a young elephant in the National zoo in Washington DC who would move a block wherever she needed it to reach food. We even know now that what makes captive elephants happy is not the size of their pen, but whether they live with other elephants, thanks to a landmark collection of papers in the scientific journal PLOS ONE last year
But our desire to be close to these incredible creatures has led us down some ugly paths. We have ridden them, dressed them up in ridiculous attire, beaten them, starved them, and slaughtered them en masse. Today tens of thousands live shackled in prisons of our making.
The impact of our changing understanding of elephant psychology has already been profound. Perhaps the most astounding change is at circuses. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, arguably the world’s most famous circuses, stopped using elephants last year – and then closed for good this May after 146 years. Britain’s last circus elephant, Anne, was rescued in 2011 after the Daily Mail revealed she was being viciously abused. Twenty countries have banned the use of elephants in circuses. Even India has banned elephants in both circuses and zoos – though the process of retiring the elephants is gradual.
“The day’s gone by of putting an animal in a cage and calling it entertainment. I think more and more people realise that is ridiculous,” says DeYoung.
Life in zoos is generally not as abusive for elephants as in circuses. Zoo elephants are not travelling overland on a weekly basis, are not usually chained up for days to weeks to years on end, and are not usually forced to perform tricks day in and day out.
But there have been enormous changes here too. Recognising the social needs of elephants, the US’s Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) now requires that any accredited zoo must have at least three female elephants, two males or three mixed genders in order to make sure elephants have peers although facilities can apply for an expectation. (There has been less progress on space: a creature known to roam hundreds to thousands of square kilometres in the wild gets as little as 500 square metres of outside space in a zoo.)
But progress is slow, and patchy. China is buying up wild elephants from Africa, and Chinese zoos are hardly known for humane conditions, and eyewitnesses say zoos there are forcing elephants to do unnatural tricks to entertain visitors, much like circuses. Even in Europe controversy remains: In April, Peta released footage of keepers at the Hanover zoo in Germany using a bullhook and whip to train juvenile elephants to perform tricks. The European Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the AZA both still allow the use of bullhooks.
And then there are the 15,000 to 20,000 elephants around the world that still spend their lives in chains. “Harsh,” is how Carol Buckley, the head of Elephant Aid International, describes conditions in Asia. “With little exception, they live in chains when not being dominated by their mahout to perform.” The mahouts “suffer equally … [Both] live in squalor, deprived of the most basic needs.” In Indonesia, activists have photographed an elephant in a zoo that lives alone with its feet tied together by a chain. It can’t move a single step.
So, what to do? We can’t just open the pen doors and unloosen all the chains.
If only they could all go and live in the sanctuary.