An Apology to Elephants

HBO An Apology to ElephantsWhat’s the problem with the elephant in the room?” asks veterinarian Mel Richardson rhetorically in the new HBO documentary An Apology to Elephants. He answers his own question: “the room.”

The problem of elephants in captivity is the heart of this film, narrated by Lily Tomlin. It guides viewers through our complicated relationships with elephants. It shows beautiful footage of wild herds and contrasts them with heartbreaking scenes from circuses and zoos.

The documentary interviews several elephant experts, including the late Pat Derby, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Her sanctuary in California is a refuge for elephants.

The film is difficult to watch. Elephants in circuses and zoos are trained through forced submission and physical violence. The bull hook is an instrument of torture and the elephants learn to fear whoever bears one. But it’s important to know about the plight of captive elephants. How they’ve been ripped away from their families in Africa and Asia just to entertain us.

baby elephant training (PETA)

The performances that these majestic elephants are forced to participate in seems to mock their very elephant-ness. The ringleaders have stench of colonialism on them. Conquer, dominate, exploit, profit.

Ringling Brothers Circus (Amy n Rob)

Elephants have been exploited for a long time. They’ve been used to perform hard labor, as instruments of war, as objects of entertainment, as transportation–not to mention being killed for their meat and ivory. Humans have been unkind to pachyderms and we owe them a better future.

Elephants in the wild form tight social bonds. Male babies stay with their mothers for up to 15 years. Females never leave the matriarchy.

The Oakland Zoo is featured prominently in the film as an example of a zoo that is changing. They’ve increased the enclosure (it’s still just 6 acres, but that’s six times bigger than Seattle’s paltry enclosure). Instead of direct contact (which involves bull hooks), they use indirect contact so trainers are never in the same area as the elephants. When they do interact with elephants, it’s through a fence and with positive reinforcement.

bullhook (IDA)

The trainers acquired the elephants through other, sub par zoos, and to my knowledge they aren’t breeding them. They acknowledged that the wild is the best place for elephants but since these ones can’t be released into the wild, improving their living conditions is the next best thing.

I don’t support zoos and I would like to see the Oakland Zoo elephants to go a sanctuary like PAWS too. Profiting from animals, whether in a zoo or circus, isn’t right. But on the spectrum of elephant treatment, Oakland is doing a whole lot more than most places.

After seeing this film, you can bet I’ll be at the circus the next time it comes to town–protesting it! In this area, Ringling has learned to stay out of Seattle, but they still come to Everett and Tacoma. I’ll be there, speaking up for the elephants who can’t. Elephants as old as I am who see nothing but the inside of trucks, the sharp end of a bull hook, and the jeering crowds in a circus tent.

I’ve written the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and asked that their elephants be released to a sanctuary. I encourage you to do the same. Write to the officials in Seattle or your local zoo.


Have you seen An Apology to Elephants? What did you think? Do you know of other captive elephants who have campaigns to help them?


6 thoughts on “An Apology to Elephants

  1. Oh the photo of the baby elephant is horrific. 😦 The circus image is chilling too. What must the elephants be thinking and feeling as they are forced to perform? Thank you for highlighting this issue.
    I had not heard of the doc. I will seek it out.
    I’m glad you mentioned Mali. I cannot believe that she has not been released. It is heart breaking.
    My sister (an ex-veterinary nurse) did some volunteer work at an elephant sanctuaty in Thailand. She wrote an article about the exploitation of wildlife in Thailand and the complicity of international tourists. The article discusses the brutal training regime (‘phajaan’) that elephants undergo. You may be interested in the article. It is here:

    • Thanks for commenting. The image of the baby elephant is horrible. So far, I try to stay away from gruesome “shock value” images on this blog, but I wanted to show the methods used (and the bull hooks in the captors’ hands). I hope the documentary makes it to Netflix soon so more people can see it. I learned a lot from it. Elephants are the gardeners of the forest. When they remove big plants, little plants can grown and smaller animals have paths into the woods. Elephants are solely responsible for propagating 36 tree species! They’re so wonderful and I hope they can be saved.

      Oh, your sisters’ article is fantastic! I added it to FB and tweeted it. People need to know how to avoid perpetuating cruelty. Like carriage horses in Seattle, the industry flourishes because of tourists’ dollars. Thank you!

  2. Elephants belong in the wild. A poor second alternative is when they need to be in a shelter of zoo for their own good. There is NEVER a reason for them to be in the cruel environment that is a circus. Any circus using wild animals as entertainment is no place to bring your family. They’d be better off driving through an animal sanctuary and seeing these majectic animals that way……….thanks for the article/review.

    • Thanks for commenting. They really do belong in the wild. Your point is spot on. Pat Derby in the documentary said something similar: “You can fix a zoo. You can’t fix a circus.” Going to a circus supports an industry that at its core is extremely cruel. A zoo can create a decent environment and higher quality of life for elephants already in captivity (if they try). It’s still nothing close to being in the wild. I’d rather see money going toward conservation. No captive elephant ever gets released so zoos aren’t helping wild populations in that regard. Preventing poaching is a much better use of resources.

      I wish there were more events like Cirque de Soleil with human acts (humans who enjoy their jobs, get paid for them, have a choice to stay or leave!). If no one went to circuses with animal “performers” they’d have to close shop or get with the times!

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