Monday, September 8, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

This article expresses well my feelings after visiting the Portland Zoo this summer. Read the article and compare it with the second article about an elephant sanctuary.

The elephant in the room
by Jonathan Nicholas, The Oregonian
Sunday September 07, 2008, 4:03 PM

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.

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.

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.

The Elephant Sanctuary

The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, is the nation's largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically to meet the needs of endangered elephants. It is a non-profit organization, licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, designed specifically for old, sick or needy elephants who have been retired from zoos and circuses. Utilizing more than 2700 acres, it provides three separate and protected, natural-habitat environments for Asian and African elephants. Our residents are not required to perform or entertain for the public; instead, they are encouraged to live like elephants.

Phil Snyder, regional director emeritus of the Humane Society of the United States has stated, "The Elephant Sanctuary represents the future of enlightened captive elephant management."

Development of The Elephant Sanctuary's facilities began in March 1995. Phase I includes a heated barn, a 200-acre steel pipe and cable elephant corral, and a 222-acre perimeter "people" fence.

PHASE II was completed December 1999, adding a 6-stall, 9000 square foot, state-of-the-art elephant barn to the facility.

Land expansion began Oct 2001 with the acquisition of a parcel of wilderness known locally as the Highland Lake Land - a 700-acre parcel of land with a 25-acre lake.

July 2003 marked the final land acquisition which constitutes our expansion. This 1840–acre parcel of wilderness was owned by International Paper company prior to becoming Elephant Country.

The African Elephant Habitat was completed January 2004. This 300-acre facility with its award-winning elephant house is a showcase for innovative solar use.

Renovation of the Phase I barn was completed Nov 2004, creating a Quarantine Facility for sick elephants.

In September 2005 we completed construction of our new Asian elephant house. (See slide show detailing construction).

Experience our 10-year timeline. (By clicking on any of the events or photos, you will be taken to a page which describes that particular entry in more detail)

Funding for all of these projects came from public contributions, membership support and in-kind donations.

As a true sanctuary, The Elephant Sanctuary is not intended to provide entertainment. Patron-level donors are invited to tour the facility through our VIP Pledge Program, but the Sanctuary is closed to the general public. Education, however, represents a key component of the Sanctuary's ongoing mission. Since its inception, the Sanctuary's outreach program has taught thousands of school children around the globe a respect for wildlife while learning about the endangered Asian elephant.

One of the most exciting in-kind donations we have received is distance-learning teleconferencing equipment from PictureTel Corporation and membership in Project DIANE (Diversified Information and Assistance Network). This is a collaborative effort to promote educational, economic, and community development. Through interactive telephone, video, and multimedia computer technology, the Sanctuary teleconferences live with schools, libraries, community centers, etc., nationally and internationally.

Video teleconferencing is a fairly new technology. With the use of high-tech digital telephone lines and surveillance type cameras, this technology creates a connection that transmits live pictures and sound. The Sanctuary has an extensive camera system; in the offices, barns, and outside in the elephants' habitat. The cameras are rotated by remote control, displaying the elephants, their entire habitat and their barn facilities.

The Discovery Channel, PBS, 20/20, CNN, and many others have made people aware that elephants are majestic creatures who are highly intelligent, complex, social, and sensitive individuals. In the wild, elephants are migratory, walking 30 to 50 miles each day, and form intricate family structures. They grieve for their dead in a more-than-instinctive way. They show humor and express compassion for one another with intense interactions. The reality of their lives in captivity is that many are in chains up to 18 hours a day. They are enclosed in steel pens -- often alone -- broken and controlled by fear and intimidation.

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