Elephant News‎ > ‎

The Elephant in the room

posted 25 Aug 2010, 12:01 by Bhavi   [ updated 26 Aug 2010, 11:21 ]


Jonathan Nicholas, The Oregonian

Portland seems hugely proud of the new baby elephant at its zoo. What the city should feel is ashamed.

The new calf is not really an elephant. It's a caricature of an elephant, a shadow of an animal, a hapless beast that that all too soon will be exhibiting every known sign of severe trauma.

A Rose-tu by any other name . . . an elephant . . .or a more shadow of one? The terrible truth is that the 300-pound infant over which we're being invited to ooh and aah is a compromised creature in a contemptible cage. Putting such an animal on public display is as appalling today as it was in the time of the Romans.

That was when zoos began, as the playthings of plutocrats. For thousands of years, potentates dispatched their armies hither and yon to pillage and plunder. Among the treasures hauled home were "exotic" creatures displayed to amuse the masses.

Should Portland spend $30 million on a bigger and better cage for its elephants? Of course, anything less would be inhumane.

Of course not, for God's sake free the poor beasts

What we need is a visioning process, some public hearings, then a blue ribbon commission to compile an environmental impact statement for an elephant sanctuary in the Tillamook Forest.

By the 1850s, this exhibitionist offshoot of imperialism had "evolved" into the municipal zoo, an institution that hurried to cover its freak show nakedness with the figleaf of an educational mission. In 1906, it must have been that passion for pedagogy that led the Bronx Zoo to exhibit a pygmy in a cage alongside its apes.

It's still a rite of parental passage to take kids to the zoo, exposing them to displays of institutionalized trauma, inviting them to gaze with wondrous eyes upon obvious suffering and interpret it as normal.

Today, almost everyone in America over 40 has a searing image from childhood. It's of a big cat in a small cage, the tiger pacing back and forth, back and forth, post-traumatic stress disorder made manifest.

Today we have bigger cages, with caring keepers and native foliage and wading pools and interactive toys designed for environmental enrichment. But the bars are just as sturdy, the confinement just as cruel.

Only once ever have I seen a happy tiger. She was in an Indian forest. The reason for her contentment was clear. She thought she was about to eat me. There are a whole series of myths perpetuated by modern zoos. Foremost is the notion that their work is critical to wildlife conservation. But it's increasingly apparent that the creatures zoos are conserving are not wild animals at all. Their carefilly calibrated bredding programs are producing nothing more than semi-domesticated shadows of the animals' true selves.

Nowhere is this more apparent -- or more tragic -- than in the American community of elephants. There is much about wild elephants, most especially the ways in which they communicate across many miles, that still we barely comprehend. But this much we do know. In their native habitat, elephants are profoundly social creatures. They raise their young within extended family structures that stretch across decades. They bury their dead, mourn them, stand vigil over their graves.

Gay Bradshaw, founder of The Kerulos Center in Jacksonville, is an ecologist and psychologist, formerly at Oregon State University, now pioneering the field of trans-species psychology. In a series of widely published papers, and an upcoming book from Yale University Press, she suggests that the global elephant population is suffering chronic post-traumatic stress, a species-wide affliction spurred by decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss.

Much of this might sound like advanced anthropocentric conjecture, but recent research in psychology, ethology and neurobiology points to increasing numbers of elephants -- in both captivity and the ever more abbreviated wild -- exhibiting behaviors associated with acute psychological distress.

This is the world in which a zoo elephant such as Portland's Rose-tu might try to trample her newborn calf, behavior utterly new to the species.

Portland has been in the zoo business since 1887. That was when a worker at City (now Washington) Park dug a bear pit and invited citizens to come by and ogle the grizzly. It's now almost 50 years that the zoo has been in the business of breeding elephants. That's long enough.

If the people of Oregon, with their zoo tickets and tax dollars, really want to serve elephants, they should contribute to the restoration and preservation of native habitat for these magnificent creatures. If citizens really care about wild creatures, after all, there's a simple solution.

Let them run free.