A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Another Zoo, Another Fatal Accident

Do elephants really belong in zoos?

By Michael Mountain

Edie the elephant with her friend, Jana, and zookeeper Stephanie James

Last Friday, at the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee, Edie the elephant backed into her handler, Stephanie James, crushing the 33-year-old zookeeper against the wall. She was rushed to hospital, but she could not be saved.

We’re sad for Stephanie James, who doubtless cared very much for Edie and for her family. We know, too, that Edie will be upset, just as you or I would if we accidentally caused someone’s death. Elephants grieve deeply over the death of one of their own, so if Edie felt close to Stephanie, she’ll be grieving over what happened, too.

Jim Vlna, the director of the zoo, quickly emphasized to the media that Edie, who is 26 years old, “will not be punished.” But why did he feel the need to tell us this? And why did his PR spokesperson, Tina Rolen, feel a need to repeat that this was an accident, not a deliberate attack, and that Edie would not be punished for it?

The answer, very simply, is that elephants and other animals are routinely punished if they step out of line. While what happened to Stephanie James was almost certainly an accident, animals in captivity do indeed rebel against their captors. Sometimes it’s passive resistance — simply refusing to cooperate; occasionally it’s active rebellion. Either way, the punishment can be severe, and we’ve seen dozens of undercover videos of elephants in zoos and circuses being horribly punished with one of the cruelest of “training” devices: the bullhook, or ankus.

Writing in CounterPunch, author Jason Hribal describes Janet, a circus elephant who rebelled against her captors. You might imagine that when circus and zoo animals rebel, they just snap and go berserk. But that’s not what happens. Janet didn’t go crazy. She was careful not to hurt anyone except the people who had been hurting her. Here’s how Hribal describes what happened:

Captive elephants have the capability of inflicting large-scale fatalities. They are big, strong, and fast. Yet, when given the opportunity to plow through a crowd of visitors or stomp a row of spectators, they almost never do. Instead, they target specific individuals.

During her rampage in 1992, [Janet] had a group of children riding on her back. She could have easily thrown them off and killed them. But she didn’t. Janet paused midway through the melee, let someone remove the children, and then continued her assault on circus employees. [Then she] picked up a fallen object off the ground and smashed it repeatedly against a wall. The object turned out to be a bullhook.

The bullhook, or ankus, is a nasty device that many zoos and circuses use to train their elephants. It looks like a crowbar but with a sharpened point on the curled end. Think of a large inverted fishhook. Trainers use the device as a weapon to strike, stab and cause pain and fear. Ringling Brothers trainers were videotaped in 2009 viciously beating their elephants with these instruments of torture.

Janet knew exactly what she was doing. So did the two chimpanzees who, last Friday (the very same day Edie backed into Stephanie James), attacked their zookeeper at the Riverside Discovery Center zoo in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. One of the chimps, a 40-year-old, decided he didn’t like being “petted” by this employee, so he grabbed her hand. She screamed, the chimp screamed back, another chimp joined in, and together they bit off two of the woman’s fingers.

The director of the zoo, was quick to say that this was the first time something like this had ever happened. But while zoos, circuses and seaquariums like to pretend that such attacks are both rare and accidental. They are neither.

Tilikum, the “killer whale” (actually an orca dolphin), has deliberately killed three people since being abducted from his mother and family in the ocean. Now held by SeaWorld, primarily for the purpose of artificially inseminating young females, he claimed his third victim last February when he attacked his trainer, tore her up, dragged her to the bottom of the pool until she was dead, and wouldn’t let anyone retrieve her body. This was no accident; it was an act of palpably deliberate rage and revenge.

Tilikum at SeaWorld

Just two months earlier, another trainer was killed by a 14-year-old. Another trainer at the same park was hit by an orca who broke her arm, injured her lung and dragged her to the bottom of the pool before letting her go. And another dragged her trainer down, allowed him to resurface to catch a breath, and then dragged him back down for another whole minute before releasing him, alive but injured. These are but a handful of reports that are rarely made public.

Even assuming that the death of Stephanie James last Friday was simply an accident, the fact is that the incident took place in an enclosed stall that requires a lot of careful maneuvering by elephants and humans. It’s a situation that’s entirely alien to elephants, who live in huge open spaces and travel hundreds of miles at a time in large family groups across their African homeland.

On Good Morning America, after zoo director James Vlna had reassured us that Edie would not be punished, Jack Hanna made an appearance to reassure us all that zoos and circuses are wonderful places for animals. Carefully dressed in his safari outfit and hat, as if he were just back from exploring the Amazon, Hanna told us that he “loves saving the animals” and that zoos and circuses are the best hope for saving elephants from extinction. (Watch the interview yourself.)

Hanna proudly added that the Los Angeles Zoo is spending $41 million on a new elephant enclosure, that the Dallas Zoo is spending $39 million on theirs and that the Baltimore Zoo and others are also building new enclosures.

That’s somewhere close to $100 million to house a handful of elephants in marginally better conditions that still bear no relation to the natural home of these largest of all land animals.

If Mr. Hanna and his zoo association really wanted to help elephants in their true homeland, imagine what they could accomplish with that kind of money.