Monday, January 15, 2007

Elephants in my Living Room, Lions in my Lap

I return from another unintended long absence, to write about a subject that's about as far removed from knitting as one can get.

I used to work with elephants.

As an admitted science nut lover, I watch a lot of PBS, which regularly airs some excellent science programs, including Scientific American Frontiers, Nova, Nova: Science Now and Nature. Last night they aired Best of Nature: 25 Years, which was a remarkable collection of clips from their best shows over the last quarter-century. Among those clips was the obligatory cheetah-chases/catches/eats-gazelle footage, which I always find hard to watch. But if you can sit through the predator-prey clips, you're then rewarded with more heart-warming footage, like that of a mother polar bear snuggling in her den nursing her tee-tiny newborn cub.

My favorite clip from last night's show was the incredibly moving story of Shirley the elephant, which originally aired in 2000 as an episode called The Urban Elephant. Shirley has lived a very hard life in one circus or zoo after another, and looks every inch of her 52 years. Prior to 2000, she had spent the last 20 years of her life as an isolated elephant at a zoo in the deep south, when it was decided to move her to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where she was reunited with another old circus elephant she'd last seen 22 years prior. Their reunion was nothing less than tear-jerking -- there was absolutely no mistaking the affection shared by Shirley and her old friend, Jenny, reinforcing the growing belief that elephants crave socialization and suffer in isolation.

And it wasn't a stretch to be reminded, as I watched Shirley's story, of a brief time in my youth when I spent a break between college semesters working at a nearby wild animal "safari", one of the hardest and most rewarding jobs I've ever had. I won't sugar-coat it for you -- much of my time was spent shoveling animal poo, (whether it be elephant, rhino or giraffe), or hefting hay bales around to feed them, or hosing out their barns. Hard, smelly, back-breaking work. But the rewards were priceless. I got to see elephants, giraffes, rhinos, lions and tigers up close and personal. I got to meet a baby elephant, and ride on the back of an adult, (I was a lot thinner, twenty-some years ago).

And I got to play with lion and tiger cubs:

Lion cubs
***Me (nice hair, nice shnozz) and cub.
(I also worked there during summers as an EMT, which explains the uniform)
One thing has always bothered me, though, about that experience. The elephant handlers always carried with them a 3-foot long solid steel pole with a sharp hook at the end, and never hesitated to use it on the elephants if they felt the animal was behaving too aggressively towards their human handlers. I was told that a handler uses the hook-tool or ankus to let the elephant know who's in charge, and that if the elephant starts to prod you with its trunk, the next time, they'll nudge you with it. The time after that, they'll shove you, and the next time, they'll knock you down and step on you, which can't end well. I was never sure if that story was really true, or was just an excuse for cruelty.

I thought about that again last night, as I was watching the story of Shirley and Jenny. I didn't see any of the handlers at either zoo in that story using the hook-tool. Perhaps it really was just an instrument of cruelty, leftover from bad circuses.

After the PBS show ended, I got on the internet to learn more about what happened with Shirley and Jenny. PBS wrote a touching follow-up about them, here. I then found the website of the Tennessee sanctuary where they've been living. That's when I read about a handler there named Joanna Burke. Joanna was a devoted caretaker at the Elephant Sanctuary, and last July, while attempting to inspect the infected eye of another elephant there named Winkie, was knocked down and killed by Winkie, a tragedy that shocked and saddened everyone involved.

And so it appears that the stories of potential elephant aggression towards humans have not been exaggerated. But in Joanna Burke's case, it happened so fast that I'm not sure if a hook-tool would have made any difference. The sanctuary attributes Winkie's surprising aggression to post-traumatic stress disorder in elephants, and considering the lives they've led, that may very well be the case.

I'm still not sure how I feel about that hook-tool, but after watching that PBS special and reading those stories, I'm forced to reconsider my feelings about circuses, zoos and captive wild animals in general. Perhaps the Barnum & Bailey mindset of my youth (wild animals are for our enjoyment and entertainment) might be maturing to a Cirque du Soleil philosophy (we must be stewards rather than exploiters of God's wild creatures).

One thing's for darn sure: we live in an amazingly complicated, intimately interconnected, bafflingly wondrous world and universe, and the more science I'm exposed to, the more and more I appreciate God's creation.


Ranger Susie said...

Great post, Mary!

(When I was a kid in Miami, my neighbor was a veterinarian for the Metro Zoo. She used to bring baby animals home all the time. Very weird to see a springbok bouncing around a suburban backyard.)

Robin said...

WONDERFUL POST!'ve made me cry and reminded my why I DON'T go to the circus (I haven't for 30+ years--childhood trauma)! I've always hated the way the handlers hand ALL the animals especially the elephants. There's something about looking into an elephant's eye that draws you into their soul.

somebunnysloveDOTcom said...

Thanks for writing this post. Recently my GF had gone to Asia on a search to find herself. She sent a letter about her wonderful elephant experience, and I thought you might get a kick out of it.

Robin said...

Great post! Such cute cubs. I was amazed to learn of the elephant sanctuary in TN. What a great place!