I’m sorry to have been away for a couple of days. Like the rest of you, I’m dealing with the Corvid-19 threat as best as possible, but refocusing my efforts into wiping down surfaces, taking an inventory of what we have, what we need, what’s an indulgence, and what we don’t need (like hundreds of rolls of toilet tissue; what’s up with that?) has taken up quite a bit of my time.
The reason I’m calling this post an intermission is not so much because I’m taking a hiatus from reporting on the World Tour, but because I want to focus on something a bit more closely.
After my talk at Powell’s, we opened the floor to questions, followed by book signing. The questions were great–thoughtful and well-expressed.
There was a young woman in the audience who, from her questions, the polite and slightly tense tone of her voice, and the flyers she placed on a table advertised her affiliation with a Portland-area animal rights group called Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants or FOZE, which describes itself on its website as “compassionate citizens from all walks of life, committed to freeing the five remaining Oregon Zoo elephants from the harsh realities of captivity. We bring to light the suffering they, and all captive elephants, endure, creating a groundswell of public pressure to end the Oregon Zoo’s breeding, acquisition and importation of elephants. Our end goal is the gradual phase-out of the elephant exhibit and the relocation of the elephants to sanctuary.”
I was asked by Powell’s staff if I wanted the flyers removed and I said, “No. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” Shutting one another out/off is part of the problem in the volatile arena of elephant preservation (and elsewhere in the world), but I’ll get to that in a moment.
There were those in the audience afterward who referred to this woman as my “heckler.” I want to stress that she in no way heckled me and was, in fact, polite in her questioning. Judging from her expression and body posture, I think I frustrated or annoyed her, but that was never my intent. I was trying, in a limited venue, to answer her questions as honestly as I could. In truth, I’d have appreciated the time to sit down with her and hear her at length, without judgment, provided she would do me the same courtesy. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the opportunity.
But I’d like to touch on what she asked me, because I think the questions are important. (In fact, I thanked her for bringing them up.) Please bear in mind that I did not record her questions verbatim, but can give you the gist.
- The first question had to do with my own feelings about elephants being kept in zoos. I’m generally not what I would call a fence-sitter, but I definitely straddle the idea of elephants in zoos versus elephants not in zoos particularly after writing ELEPHANT SPEAK; not because I’m wishy-washy, but because I’m still forming my opinions. I don’t like the idea of animals in zoos, but can’t deny that those in zoos are not only ambassadors for their wild cousins, but provide valuable biological and psychological information to researchers who (to mention only one case) are striving to eradicate Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus, which can kill an elephant in 24 hours. Caring for them is the big issue, and that encompasses everything from diet to exercise to stimulation to the preservation of herd dynamics … and so much more. Even Roger, who cared for them for 30 years in a captive environment, feels torn. These days, he concedes that if not in a zoo, then where? “When did you last see enough wild to accommodate elephants?” he asked me. “We’ve eaten up their range territories.” Sanctuaries have their place (there are several–three here in the U.S. and three in Thailand come immediately to mind), but can be limited in scope due to available land and, in truth, are far from “wild” since the elephants are still cared for, vetted, and provided with food by humans. And, like zoos, they are only so good as the people (and finances) behind them. A well-regarded wild-animal veterinarian recently shared a horrific story about being called in to consult on an elephant at a North American sanctuary and arriving to find the animal’s feet in deplorable condition. Despite his recommendations, nothing was done. (The facility vet called him, sobbing, because they weren’t allowed to do anything.) In the end, the elephant was euthanized. So the upshot is that broad statements are dangerous: there are facilities (and people) which are good, and others which are not.
- Her second question was more of a comment. In my talk, I’d mentioned the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and she informed me there were other sanctuaries in the U.S. I responded that I knew that, however, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee was one with which I corresponded quite a bit in my search for information. It their credit, the PAWS Sanctuary at ARK 2000 also provided information and generously gave permission to use a photo of one of their elephants.
- Her third question was in a slightly confrontation tone, which is when I realized I was somehow upsetting her. It had to do with two elephants at a sanctuary in California having been rescued from the Oregon Zoo. She asked if I knew about them and I said that I did, but I did not go into detail at the time and should have.
A bull elephant by the name of Prince resides at ARK 2000. He was born at the Oregon Zoo on May 24, 1987 to Me-Tu and Hugo, and his original name was Chang-Dee. In 1988, ownership was transferred to Ringling Bros/Barnum & Bailey in an exchange deal for his sire. (You can read more about Hugo, the “Master of Disaster” in ELEPHANT SPEAK.) In 2010, Prince was retired to Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation. From there, he moved to PAWS in 2011. So, yes, he has been rescued (although I might hesitate to use that word), but not from the Oregon Zoo. (You can see a picture of the adult Prince on the PAWS website.)
The second elephant is a cow named Tina, who was born at the Oregon Zoo on April 26, 1970 to Rosy and Thonglaw. At the age of two, she was sold to the Vancouver Game Farm in Aldergrove, British Columbia, where she spent most of her life (apart from a brief move to African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario, in 1989). In 2003, Tina’s owners donated her PAWS. Sadly, she died a year later. A necropsy showed the underlying cause to be heart disease, very possibly a genetic defect. So, as with Prince, Tina was rescued (or, rather, given) to PAWS, but not taken from the Oregon Zoo. (You can see a picture of the adult Tina on the Elephant Sanctuary website.)
The topic of elephants in captivity is an understandably volatile one, but as I pointed out during my talk at Powell’s, unless the different camps are willing to sit down and actually listen to one another in a non-judgmental way, our hopes of finding a solution to the elephants’ survival dwindles. There are many viewpoints. Some are usable, others not so much, but we must come to understand that there is no one answer, no one solution, no one way to solve this problem. And we are throwing away an important opportunity if we don’t step back from our deeply and rigorously held beliefs in order to hear one another, consider another’s perspective, and display a willingness to compromise. Without that, we and the elephants will lose.