If you’re already outraged by what Lily Tomlin calls “the bizarre practice of caging wild animals for public display,” the HBO documentary An Apology to Elephants won’t necessarily tell you a lot more than you already know.
Still, it’s great to see the former star of Laugh-In not only as the narrator of this heart-touching documentary, but also as the show’s producer. As a comedian she was priceless, and she’s equally priceless as an advocate for elephants.
You probably already know that elephants at circuses are literally tortured into submission by the use of bullhooks and electric prods to get them to do stunts like standing on one leg on a stool, parading around on their back legs, and dancing to stupid music as clowns jump on their heads. But in this movie you’ll also see rare footage, like of baby elephants a hundred years ago being captured in Africa and hoisted onto and off ships on their way to a new life as circus performers in America and all across Europe.
“They never forget friends and companions.”The film moves back and forth between life in the wild and life in captivity – from circuses and zoos to the forests and savannahs of Africa, and to their lives at sanctuaries like the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California. So the heart-wrenching moments of seeing the animals being beaten and tortured into submission are tempered by glorious minutes in their extended families migrating across Africa, or finding peace and love when a precious few of them get a new life at PAWS.
Some of the best parts of the movie, if you’re already familiar with the life of elephants at zoos and circuses, are the interviews with scientists, zoologists and indeed zookeepers who talk about the nature of elephants, their intelligence, their family bonds and grieving rituals, and how they relate to each other and to humans. (Several of them will be serving as expert witnesses when the Nonhuman Rights Project goes to court seeking recognition as a “legal person” for its first zoo or circus elephant.)
Pat Derby, the founder of PAWS (who passed away earlier this year), tells of two elephants, Gypsy and Wanda, who had known each other at a circus in the 1980s before being separated. Eventually, both of them came to PAWS.
“When they met each other here,” she says, “they went crazy.” We see them swimming together in a small lake and then giving each other a dust bath. “Now they’re inseparable,” Derby says. “They never forget friends and companions.”
And there’s Lulu, who came to PAWS in 2005. Lulu was born in Swaziland and shipped to the San Francisco zoo when she was still a baby. Without her mother and family, Lulu grew up to be ever more disturbed and aggressive, hurling rocks and other projectiles at people.
Annie was in deep grief. For six months she wouldn’t even leave the barn. And then one day it was like ‘O.K., I’m moving on.’“She had deadly aim,” says Derby, “and she wanted to kill you.”
Eventually the zoo agreed to send her to PAWS, and Derby describes her as a “special project” in terms of building a new relationship of trust with humans. Lulu still takes an occasional swing at people – but never at Derby.
Two of the elephants, Annie and Tammy, came to PAWS together. They were both old and had suffered greatly, but they were deeply attached to each other and enjoyed roaming the land at PAWS.
“Tammy survived a long time,” Derby says. “But we finally lost her. Annie was in deep, horrible grief.” For six months she wouldn’t even leave the barn. She would just stare out, motionless. “And then one day it was like ‘O.K., I’m moving on.’ And she went out and started grazing.” (We see her in the water, taking a dust bath, and getting back to normal.)
Joyce Poole, co-founder of Elephant Voices, and one of the world’s experts on the social behavior and communication of these animals, explains what happens when, on their migrations, they come across the bones and tusks of an elephant who’s died. We see them gathering around, carefully and gently exploring the remains with their trunks.
“They usually go to the head and the lower jaw,” she explains. “They’ll feel all along the tusk. They’ll feel the teeth. It appears they may be trying to recognize who that individual was. The day that I came across Toni standing out on the plain [of Africa] with her stillborn baby, she stood there for two days defending it against approaches from jackals and hyenas. But it was the way in which she stood over that calf. She didn’t stand like an elephant normally stands. Instead, her ears were hanging down, her mouth was turned down. Everything about her spelled grief to me.”
Veterinarian Dr. Mel Richardson explains how, for a large, heavy animal whose nature is to travel hundreds of miles at a time, being kept in a small space is medically disastrous. Most elephants in zoos and circuses die from problems that start in their feet.
Within ten years, elephants will be extinct in the wild.Two zookeepers from the Oakland Zoo talk about how the zoo has changed its way of relating to elephants – to give them much more space and to replace punishment with positive reinforcement. It’s not the greatest, but it’s a big step up. And Pat Derby commends what they’re doing. “You can fix a zoo,” she says. “But you can’t fix a circus.”
And the circuses are just the worst thing ever for elephants. (Lily Tomlin doesn’t mention businesses like Have Trunk Will Travel that train elephants for the movies and other shows, but they’re in the same category as circuses.)
For elephants in the wild, meanwhile, life is going from bad to worse. Cynthia Moss of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants tells us that up to 38,000 elephants a year are being shot for their ivory tusks, most of which end up in China. Moss reckons that within ten years, elephants will be extinct in the wild.
Richardson adds that breeding them in captivity for the purposes of “conservation” (as many zoos pretend to be doing as part of their mission) is just not possible. Just for starters, without their mothers and grandmothers to teach them how to live and where to find food and water, they have no hope of surviving.
The movie ends with young people protesting outside zoos and circuses and encouraging people not to buy a ticket to go in. These youngsters clearly know more about the situation than the clueless adults who should be teaching the children. Then again, it’s these young people who will be left to figure out how to live in a world where all that remains of the elephants (and so many other kinds of animals) are a few remaining sad-looking individuals peering at them from over a fence at a zoo.