Many people have been enchanted by this video of Shanthi, a 36-year-old elephant at the National Zoo, playing the harmonica. "Fantastic" and "Awesome" are some of the comments on YouTube.
I’m less than enchanted.
In the video, elephant keeper Debbie Flinkman tells us how much Shanthi enjoys her life at the zoo:
"We offer the elephants opportunities to do the same things they would do in the wild here at the zoo or park. Only they get to do them here for pleasure almost, and in the wild they have to do them to survive … They don’t have to spend every moment of their day looking for enough food and searching for things and looking around to survive."
I’m left thinking that while Flinkman doubtless cares about Shanthi, this is a classic piece of zoo-business anthropomorphism. Does Flinkman seriously think that blowing through a harmonica really makes up for being locked in an enclosure thousands of miles away from your homeland, where you lived with a large extended family as nature intended?
What else does the zoo need to do to keep these super-intelligent animals from being bored out of their skulls? (They can blow through a horn, too, Flinkman says.)
Who are we to decide that having a few toys at a zoo is what elephants prefer? Does Flinkman truly believe that Shanthi can do "the same things they would do in the wild"?
The elephant, she explains, was "a gift" from Sri Lanka. Did Shanthi want to be a gift?