The famed Canadian author Margaret Atwood once wrote, “The world seen clearly is seen through tears.” At times during the presentations of the elephant summit there was nary a dry eye in the room.
Elephants exist all over the world outside of their natural habitats. Most find themselves stranded away from their families and homes for the amusement and profit of human beings. All of those in circuses and most in zoos are suffering from isolation, and lack of being able to participate in normal elephant behaviors done freely in the wild- not to mention archaic “training” methods of beatings and chains. Slowly the public is becoming more aware of the sad torturous lives of elephants inside the tents and hidden in cold rooms. Today there are many knowledgeable experts – many of them at this very conference- who are devoted to steadily improving the lives of captive elephants.
Colleen Kinzley, Director of Animal Care, Conservation and Research of the Oakland Zoo, is an outspoken critic of outdated management practices. She has studied elephants in the wild and science based research that shows that changes in social and biophysical environments yield improved health and psychological health for captive elephants. Environments that promote species-appropriate behavior are critical for elephants in captivity, as is physical vigor: home ranges are needed for foraging and other activity and exercise for bodies and minds. In the wild they have social access to each other a majority of the time. Elephants are very intelligent and are prone to cooperate and respect those who treat them outside the realm of dominance.
In 1985 Gail Laule of Active Environments, Inc. with her partner Tim Desmond, created an alternate system for managing elephants. It’s called Protected Contact and had two objectives: keeper safety, and animal welfare. Necessary contact with the elephant is done with use of a barrier and positive reinforcement. A trainer uses a “target” tool, looks a lot like a big q-tip and encourages the elephant to come towards it for a tasty treat of bananas or other fruit. There is no punishment if the elephant is not ready to play along; she just forgoes her treat for the moment. The process will be tried again later for short sprints of time. This is helpful and necessary for moving elephants, cleaning their feet and nails, and administering any necessary medicines and tests.
Later in the day Margaret Whittaker, Behavioral Consultant of Active Environments would further elucidate protected contact and its importance in training for reliable blood collection from elephants.
Adam Stone, Elephant Program Manager at Zoo Atlanta dramatically illustrated the treatment of serious, life threatening case of leptospirosis in an African elephant and how she was successfully treated through a long difficult process all with Protected Contact.
Dagmar Gerdes of the San Juan de Aragon Zoo in Mexico talked about he challenges of zoos in Mexico as they more toward Protected Contact. Guy Lichty, Curator of the North Carolina Zoo, also discussed treating cataracts in an African bull with Protected contact.
Dr. Keith Lindsay, Researcher/Conservation Biologist and on the Scientific Advisory Committee of Amboseli Elephant Research Project, gave us an overview of the foraging and ranging behavior of African elephants in wild habitats, with implications for captive management and well-being. Captive elephants are still wild and have the same basic needs. In the wild looking for food employs the constant use of limbs and bodies. In captivity they are most restrained in use of bodies. More is being learned all the time with now five females collared with cell phones and gps system so they can tell very hour where they are. It shows how they change their roaming and habits with the weather, when they rest and when move, diets for different seasons.
Gina Kinzley, Senior Elephant Keeper at the Oakland Zoo, explained how they are using behavioral research both from scientists in the field and then their own group of observers of their zoo elephants to compare and measure and improve welfare. By doing so and spreading their browse or different foods around their grounds they have learned to increase the travel time and improve their lives. It’s tough keeping them busy and they are trying to increase their time spent in activity to 20 hours a day. They have six and a half acres total, a browse program, and a shallow pool. They have observers there nearly around the clock and keep trying to find ways to improve their lives. She says they will be adding another meadow to the elephant area. She says this kind of monitoring can be done with circus investigations to show the lack of elephant welfare.
Elephant sanctuaries are built to be permanent homes for those poor refuges of circuses and other abusive situations. They do not believe in breeding in captivity and the animals have minimized contact with the public. Rob Atkinson, CEO of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee takes in elephants with special needs: elephants in captivity and with TB. They believe the best is not good enough for the elephants and look for allies. Elephants want the company of other elephants, lots of space, the ability to swim and lots of browse. At TES they use only protected contact and are building walls out in the middle of a large habitat, so the elephants don’t have to come all the way back a mile or so to the barn to get a treatment. He spoke lovingly about Shirley who had been 23 years in a circus, burned, leg been broken, 20 years in solitary confinement in the zoo. Now she wanders all over the sanctuary. It took five years to let anyone near with a chain still on one leg. It was finally cut through with positive reinforcement as she lifted her foot. A very touching video. When Jenny joined the sanctuary it was a joyful reunion as she and Shirley had been together briefly as young elephants and their wonderful memories brought back every moment. After Jenny died, she became best pals with Tara the dog. A famous video of the two of them has been all over the Internet. and emails. After all she has been through, she still is full of love.
Emcee Ed Stewart chimed in, “We’re kind of old school, not old school, just old –tired, worn out.” Then he introduced he introduced Pat Derby, “our leader—my leader” with whom he started P.A.W.S. 27 years ago. Pat, President and Founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society and whose advocacy for animals developed more than four decades ago when she began working with captive wildlife in movies and television commercials. She witnessed firsthand the severe neglect and abuse that was prevalent in animal training. Her autobiography, The Lady and Her Tiger, was the first expose’ of the treatment of performing animals.
Pat talked about the challenges of managing bull elephants, even in sanctuaries. They did not feel equipped to handle them, but Bob Barker called and asked them to take a couple of elephants at PAWS, Gypsy and Nicolas. He promised to pay all the expenses. Pat enlisted the help of Gail Laule and her partner Margaret Whittaker who promised to help with managing techniques. Even with the state of the art fencing and other equipment and extremely loving and experienced elephant handlers, Pat and Ed, came across big problems with Nick when he went into musth and started throwing Gypsy around.
When Nick was a baby he was forced to ride tricycles in the circus but as a young adult, a male can be indomitable. Unfortunately when they reach a certain age, many of them spend the rest of their lives on a chain. This is one of the primary reasons Pat is adamantly against breeding in captivity. The PAWS vet thinks castrating bulls brings on arthritis. There is nowhere to go for these bulls that are born. Unfortunately bulls born at a breeding zoo can end up in the circus and to this life of horror.
For the past four months Pat and Ed have been doing due diligence jumping through hoops to make sure the three elephants in the Toronto Zoo who have been set free by the City Council to come to PAWS but are still being held back by the zoo. They are asking for more and more paperwork to make sure the sanctuary will be “good enough” to take their elephants.
Joel Parrott, DMV, Executive director of the Oakland Zoo, talked about Colleen Kinzley’s passion for elephants and how it has affected the zoo procedures. In Africa one can get to understand what importance a family relationships is to and elephant and in captive situations that is all lost. His zoo prosteletizes against circuses. They have signs around the zoo about circuses being no place for elephants. He admits to much hypocrisy in zoos and says they have traditionally been wrong. He believes the only justification for zoos going forward is to help protect elephants in the wild by raising money and holding conservations programs to enlighten the public help protect animals in the wild.
Co-Founders of Elephant Haven, the first European Elephant Sanctuary (in development) Tony Verhulst and Sofie Goetghebeur of Belgium spoke next. They have found 123 acres of land in the southwest of France, with a variety of vegetation, edible tress and shrubs, three hand made lakes. They plan protected contact, barns with sand, roaming day and night, enrichment plan. They are putting together their fundraising efforts now and have the support of the mayor of the nearby town.
Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani, Founders of Wildlife SOS India, continued their startling report about the plight of Indian elephants who have no road safety, are often crippled, and without clean water. The lack of responsibility of owners and mahouts make the elephant the victim with acts of deliberate cruelty as means of negotiation between greed and bitterness. They, like the Europeans, spend hours at the PAWS Sanctuary as a model for building their upcoming sanctuaries in India.
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Please visit Parts I and III of this story in the Splash articles:
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