A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Who ‘Owns’ This Baby Elephant?


It was all smiles last week when the Oregon Zoo announced the birth of Lily, a 300-pound, super-cute, gangly baby elephant. But the smiles started turning sour as soon as the business dealings that underlie Lily’s future life came to light.

Three days after Lily was born, the Seattle Times reported that Lily is owned by the California company Have Trunk Will Travel that rents out elephants to entertainment companies for shows, movies and rides. Have Trunk Will Travel had loaned one of its elephants, Tusko, to the Oregon Zoo in exchange for ownership rights to the second, fourth and sixth babies that would be born to Tusko and Rose-Tu, with whom he was mated.

And since Lily is the second baby, she is contractually owned by Have Trunk Will Travel.

Have Trunk was in the news last year when Animal Defenders International released undercover video of the 45-year-old elephant Tai, being tortured as part of her “training” to be filmed for the movie “Water for Elephants.” The video is excruciatingly painful just to watch – let alone what it must be like for any elephant in the “care” of the sadistic trainers who are seen beating, chaining and prodding the screaming, terrified elephants with a million volts of electricity.

Lost in all this unseemly debate over who owns the baby is the person to whom baby Lily really belongs: her mother!And this is the life to which Lily has been born. Have Trunk has the legal right to take her away as soon as she is 30 days old. 

Not surprisingly, both the entertainment company and the zoo are saying that that’s not going to happen. But neither of them is saying it’s not ever going to happen. The zoo made a Faustian bargain, and sooner or later, the company to which it has sold its soul, along with half of its baby elephants, will come to collect.

“They can’t come here and take an animal,” zoo director Kim Smith said at a press conference. “The zoo and Have Trunk have a positive relationship and the company also wants to have the calf remain at the zoo.”

But oh yes they can. And no one in the animal protection world – or, indeed, the business world – believes for a moment that Have Trunk won’t want its share of the deal. The Seattle Times just ran a major series of investigative reports showing how elephants are the backbone of the zoo business – the cash cows, so to speak. And zoos are frantically trying to breed more of them since elephants generally die young in captivity.


At the press conference, zoo director Smith finally admitted that she couldn’t guarantee that Lily was safe. Later, Catherine Doyle of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, which operates a large sanctuary for elephants who have been retired from zoos and circuses, told reporters “This is a business transaction,” and said there’s no way that an entertainment company that makes money by renting out elephants is going to give up on the deal it’s made.

Lost in all this unseemly debate over who owns the baby is the person to whom baby Lily really belongs: HER MOTHER! Until elephants are recognized as legal persons with basic legal rights appropriate to their species, their lives in captivity will never change.

But Rose-Tu has no say in the matter. The fact that, in the natural world, she would spend years nurturing, raising and caring for her daughter, and that baby Lily would most likely stay in her mother’s herd for life, is entirely lost in the contractual world of competing human businesses, all grabbing for their share of Rose-Tu’s family.

And the reason Rose-Tu has no say in the matter is that she is not a person in any legal sense. Rose-Tu, Tusko, Lily and all the other elephants in captivity in the human world are nothing more than pieces of property – items to be bought and sold, put on display, tortured into submission for circuses, shows and movies. In some places there are laws governing how humans may or may not treat elephants, but the fundamentals are very clear. They are property – slaves by any definition.

And until elephants cease to be viewed as “things” by the legal system, and are instead recognized as legal persons with basic legal rights as appropriate to their species, this will never change.

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Here’s a video report from KATU-TV, Portland. It includes a few seconds of the undercover video shot by Animal Defenders Intentional last year.