Summit for Elephants - They Need Our Help

Georja enjoys the company of African beauties

How To Protect Pachyderms

Along with wildlife veterinarians and trainers, progressive zoo directors and curators, animal rights lawyers and wildlife biologists, animal activists and animal rescuers, field scientists and animal cops, philanthropists and volunteers, a Mexican clown -- and even an officer from the US Department of Agriculture -- I was privileged to attend the three-day Summit for Elephants at ARK 2000, a Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) ( sanctuary in San Andreas, California, the weekend of April 24. One thing we all had in common: a deep concern and love for the fate of wildlife, especially elephants.

Pat Derby shows the inside of 20,000 foot elephant barn complete with heated floors and jacuzzi

Pat Derby and her partner Ed Stewart, co-founders of PAWS (see my related LASplash article did an excellent job of putting together and attracting a prestigious and knowledgeable group. All the latest research about elephants and their needs was covered. State-of-the art environments were described. And Pat and Ed's number-one premise of the conference was clear: No matter what differences there may be among various animal groups and their philosophies, it is imperative that we all get together on one important issue -- close down all options of having wildlife in circuses.

It was brought home in so many disturbing videos and reports again and again: Wild creatures, especially elephants, are horribly abused and suffer miserably when forced into captivity in any circumstances. Those animals that are unfortunate enough to end up in performing situations are always maltreated, beaten, chained and forced to do unnatural things with their bodies which lead to long-term, unmitigated suffering and death. They suffer severe social and physical deprivation, and usually electric shock. This is the hidden aspect of the circus, billed as family entertainment, but these animal experts are calling it "the ugliest show on earth."

Over 100 participants gathered in a new elephant barn to learn the latest in elephant news and protections

In many circumstances there has been a close affiliation between circuses and zoos. For example, baby elephants bred in the Portland Zoo with much fanfare at birth have ended up in a circus. They sustained fatal injuries and were forced to stand still in a dark place for a year before they died.

Nicholas, once in a circus forced to ride a tricycle, comes to say hello

In a current lawsuit against the Ringling Brothers Circus based on the Endangered Species Act, amazingly the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) has stood on the side of the circus. (Although in another case, the Albuquerque Zoo played a strong hand in shutting down a circus in New Mexico.)

Ed Stewart masterminded the structures for Nick, the first bull elephant resident at PAWS

At the Elephant Summit, there were several progressive zoo directors who are going against the AZA trend and take every possible opportunity to improve the animal lives for which they are guardians. Ron Kagan, Director of the Detroit Zoological Society, was instrumental in closing down the Detroit elephant exhibit when he realized it was inadequate for elephants' needs. Colleen Kinzley, General Curator of the Oakland Zoo, leads her zoo's efforts in elephant research and conservation as well as studying elephant communication and social behavior in Namibia. Pat Lampi, Executive Director of the Alaska Zoo, oversaw the relocation of African elephant Maggie from the Alaska Zoo to PAWS' ARK 2000. As Curator of Mammals at the North Carolina Zoological Park, Guy Lichty has been instrumental in greatly expanding and enriching the elephant areas of his zoo, finding creative ways of allowing the elephants to browse and forage.

Teala Smith, foreground, a clown who works in Mexico, enjoys viewing the elephant meandow with other participants

Dr. Joyce Poole of Elephant Voices, pre-eminant elephant field biologist and researcher, presented some of the latest research on wild elephants based on her studies at Amboseli National Park in Kenya and in her newer studies in Sri Lanka.  She offered the concept of zoos consolidating elephants from facilities across the country and establishing groups in large elephant preserves in climate-appropriate areas of the U.S. Some ethical issues would still remain, but such a preserve would improve the quality of life for captive-held elephants immensely.

Dr. Joyce Poole shares information with a young animal lover

There are some major differences between animal activists like Pat and Ed, who do not believe wildlife should be bred in captivity, and some of the zookeepers who do have breeding programs. There are also differences in standards for space for the elephants and in training techniques. But the intolerable cruelty that is being suffered today in circuses worldwide makes it imperative to lay aside those differences and save these helpless victims.

Looking across the fields to the elephant barns

Speakers from Animal Defenders International (ADI) showed horrific footage they gathered through their undercover investigative work of animals being tortured into submission. It was hard to watch, and I was not the only one with a wet face who had to go outside. "We can definitely win this fight against animal cruelty," said ADI spokesperson Alexandra Cardenas. Her optimism was based on much of their success in England, where they have shut down several circuses and specifically Chipperfields, which she said was a "cancer to exotic animals." The solution requires a three-part approach: public awareness, national and local legislative measures, and strong and factual evidence.

Tanya, chef of Native Foods(r)and her assistant prepare vegan brownies for summit members

ADI's "Stop Circus Suffering" campaign has been launched in the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Norway, Greece, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and the USA. Their hardcore, concrete evidence has shown people ugly facts. In the USA, the traveling circuses are on the road longer than in any other country. Animals spend most of their lives on arduous journeys, and chained up on asphalt and parking lots, surrounded by loud noises, with no time to rest. Subjected to long hours of narrow confinement in boxcars and trucks, the sick and injured animals have no chance of good veterinary care. Their cages are usually barely larger than the animals themselves, and their lives are punctuated by violence. Moving them relies on force. Often the only exercise they get is when they are prodded out to the circus tent to perform. Elephants have been seen performing while bleeding and with open sores. Many of the ADI undercover investigators took jobs in circuses and even stayed there for a period of two years to be able to see abuses firsthand. They made logs and videos to be used to enlighten the public and as evidence for regulation to protect animals.

Trainer Brian demonstrates Protected Contact method with Nick

As an antidote to maltreatment, presentations and demonstrations by animal trainer Margaret Whittaker of Active Environments proved to the group the benefits of using the latest techniques of Protected Contact with wild animals.  For their own safety, wild captive animals need to be trained to allow for routine veterinary procedures and necessary moving. In Protected Contact, all the interaction is voluntary on the part of the animal, based on positive reenforcement, and at the same time, the interaction takes place often behind barriers for the complete safety of the trainer.  This is already being used with Nicholas, the resident bull elephant at PAWS and in many zoos, and it is hoped will become official AZA policy in the near future.

Nicholas happily lifts his foot for treats

Nicole Paquette, an officer and legal counselor of Born Free USA, is based in Sacramento. She focuses on captive elephants, trapping, wildlife conflicts and zoos and has assisted countless cities and states with introducing and passing laws relating to the private possession of dangerous wild animals and animals in entertainment. The Animal Welfare Act only requires minimum standards of care and does not prohibit the use of bull-hooks or chains. Nationally, there are only 100 government inspectors for 12,000 facilities. Circuses can be cited but there is no follow-through. They can settle with the US Department of Agriculture for a small fine so there is no violation on their record.

Pat Derby (r), founder of PAWS, compares notes with Catherine Doyle of IDA

Nicole, along with Dr. Poole, is involved with the Ringling Brothers trial, which has been going on for eight years. Asian elephants are an endangered species, and as such it is against the law to harm or harass them. This is the first time that the federal Endangered Species Act is being enforced against a circus. State laws do not ban elephants in circuses and anti-cruelty measures fail to provide proper protection. Sometimes it is necessary to start at the local level and move up to state and national. In the UK over 200 localities have banned wildlife in circuses. In the USA so far only 30 have enacted similar bans. California is the only state that bans electric prods on elephants, and so far this prohibition has not been enforced against a circus.

Summit participants relax with a cocktail hour among the pachyderm

Catherine Doyle of In Defense of Animals (IDA) commented, "It's unrealistic to think we can send every elephant held in captivity to a sanctuary, so we must continue to drive zoos toward taking a mammoth leap forward in the care of elephants...Considering all the discussion surrounding the plight of elephants in circuses, it's time for the zoo industry to step up and condemn the use of elephants in circuses and other forms of entertainment. This includes elephant rides, which are currently offered by two Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities."

Cindy Machado, Officer of the Marin County Humane Society,enjoys the outdoor time

Although legislators are reluctant to be the first to ban circuses, most of them are against animal cruelty. So it is up to us to show them the cruelty with hardcore evidence. On the bright side, Oprah, Ellen, and the media in general have been picking up more and more animal stories, and California's Prop 2 (improving treatment of farm animals) received considerable media attention. For some reason it is taking humanity a long time to wake up to its own cruelty. In the past, it has been much the same with slavery and women. Animals, I believe, are still a gaping blind spot to our own humanity. We must wake up and fix our regard for other creatures. It will take an overhaul in consciousness together with education and strong laws to move forward.

Residents at PAWS enjoy the spring grasses

P.T. Barnum said a sucker is born every minute. Don't be a sucker. Tell the circus you won't buy another ticket until they clean up their act. To get involved in this campaign, please contact PAWS, IDA, BornFree USA, or ADI.

Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.

PAWS wildlife sanctuary ARK 2000
(209) 745 2606

Upcoming Events:

See The Elephants Getaway Packages
One and Two Day (including Bed and Breakfast) Tours
May 30
June 20
September 12
October 31
November 14

May Open House - May 9
Elephant Grape Stomp - October 17
Elephant and Tiger Holiday Open House - December 12

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