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Time to Pack the Trunk for Elephants

By Michael Mountain

In the old children’s song, Nellie the Elephant “packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus. Off she went with a trumpity-trump, trump, trump, trump.” Could this be coming true in real life for elephants in circuses and zoos? The signs are beginning to look quite hopeful.

For starters, the city of Los Angeles is poised to pass a ban, within city limits, on circus elephants and elephants shows of all kinds.

The circus, show, and zoo businesses are, understandably, still fighting, tooth and nail, to hang on to what they call “their” elephants. Kari Johnson, the owner of the infamous company Have Trunk Will Travel, told the New York Times that the new law could be “ruinous” to her business.

“I believe if something drastic doesn’t happen, then we will be the last generation that trains elephants,” Johnson said, referring to the fact that her stepfather was an elephant trainer.

But Animal Defenders International revealed how people train elephants for their lives in the entertainment world in a truly horrifying video that showed people beating the elephant Tai as they “trained” her for the movie Water for Elephants. In the video, she screams in pain as her owners drag her by the lip with a bull hook, pin her down, saw her tusks down, and shock her with a million volts of electricity. (One of the videos is here, and the other is here.)

Photo of the baby elephant Lily.Similar treatment is routine for “training” operations that use and abuse elephants for shows.

Have Trunk is also the “owner” of baby Lily (photo right), who was born at the Oregon Zoo. At one month old, “ownership” of Lily transferred from the zoo to Have Trunk as a result of a breeding loan agreement by which the zoo rented her father, Tusko, from Have Trunk.

But if the L.A. city council votes as expected, Have Trunk and other similar businesses will have a somewhat more precarious future. And what happens in L.A. has a way of spreading across the country.

This week, the Seattle Times also took note of Lily’s transfer from the zoo, after a series of investigative reports, in December, 2012, about “the dark side of elephant captivity.”

As a result of those reports, people are pressuring Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo into putting together an independent panel to study the future of the zoo’s three elephants, Chai and Watoto (photo below) and Bamboo.

According to the Seattle Times:

Chai right waits patiently for Watoto near the gate to the Woodland Park Zoo elephant barn[Councilmember Sally] Bagshaw wants detailed information and guidance … about keeping elephants in captivity and the best practices nationally and internationally for their care and maintenance. She is also looking for information about conservation and threats to elephants in the wild.

… Options include sanctuaries, such as the three sanctuaries in Northern California operated by Performing Animal Welfare Society. The Toronto zoo opted to close its zoo exhibit and send its elephants to PAWS, with all costs borne by the sanctuary and other donations.

The Seattle Times is already pressing for the elephants to be sent to one of those sanctuaries:

Let Chai, Watoto and Bamboo spend the rest of their lives in open space with three new Canadian friends, Thika, Toka and Iringa.

Photo of Toka, Thika and Iringa at the Toronto zoo using their trunk to throw sand.
Toka, Thika and Iringa at the Toronto Zoo

For their part, the three elephants from the Toronto Zoo are on track to fly from Toronto, this coming spring, to the PAWS sanctuary in California. This should have happened last year, but for about 18 months, following a decision by the Toronto Council, the zoo has been putting up endless roadblocks to do with permits, flight arrangements, irrelevant scare tactics about TB at PAWS, and other diversions like an alternate plan that would send them to a facility in Florida that works under the auspices of the zoo industry. Finally, in November 2012, the city council voted overwhelmingly, once again, to move the elephants. Meanwhile, even though Toka, Thika, and Iringa endure another freezing winter in Toronto, PAWS plans to move them as soon as winter weather subsides a little.

Other zoos are also under pressure. Last year, the Los Angeles Zoo found itself in court receiving withering criticism from a federal judge.

The Nonhuman Rights Project will likely select an elephant as one of its first plaintiffs in upcoming lawsuits seeking to have state high courts recognize these animals as “legal persons” rather than pieces of property that we can mistreat, trade, loan, and generally abuse for the purposes of entertaining an unwitting public.

It was a children’s song when Nellie the elephant “packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus.” But 2013 may be the year that this delightful story began to move from the world of fiction to the world of fact.

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