Saturday, December 24, 2011

Water for Elephants or Why Zoos Suck

A couple of months ago I read Water for Elephants because I was so tired of hearing about it.  People in my book club raved about it (I joined after they read it). Then Hollywood made it into a movie starring that annoying Twilight kid and the hype increased significantly.  If the movie was half as good as people claimed the book was then I was probably going to see it.  I picked the book up from the library, hoping to be blown away and excited about seeing a great movie adaptation of the book.  I was not. 

The book is about animal abuse in the circus.  It is not a book that I enjoyed reading.  The author tries to make up for the abuse with a feeble love story but it is not enough to distract the reader.  The images of animal abuse in the book far outweigh the lovey-dovey ones.  This book makes you realize that this behavior, and much worse, is commonplace at zoos all over the world.  Even though the book is fiction the abuse that takes place at these places is very real.   The author indicated that the book was a compilation of several stories that she collected while interviewing actual circus people.  At the end of the book, Rosie the abused elephant, kills her abuser. The murder of the abuser is supposed to make the reader forget about all the abuse and focus on the triumph of the elephant.  Then the two lovers ride off into the sunset with their elephant (seriously, they do because that's realistic) to live happily ever after.   

This afternoon I watched a documentary called One Lucky Elephant.  This documentary tells the story of a man who bought an elephant named Zora for his circus.  This man and Zora went on to perform together for 16 years until the elephant stopped "enjoying it".  The focus of the documentary is finding a place for Zora to live out the rest of her days.  It is difficult for the zookeeper to place Zora because she hasn't socialized with other elephants since she was baby and has formed an unnatural attachment to the zookeeper.  The zookeeper admits that he should have had more than one elephant because they are social animals and they do not do well alone.  Oh yeah and he did use negative and abusive training methods on her but that was how everyone did it and how else were you going to get her to do what you wanted?  Maybe he had spoiled her too much and she had never learned any sense of boundaries.  Maybe there were incidents where she showed herself to be aggressive and potentially dangerous for humans to be around but he had excuses for all of this.  

We're were supposed to feel sorry for this poor guy because he needed to find a new home for his elephant and not focus on the fact that he had created this awful situation in the first place.  At first you think his urgency is due to how much he loves the elephant and how he can't stand to see her unhappy but then it's clear that's not the case.  He plans to bring in new, younger elephants at the beginning of the next season and needs to unload Zora so he can focus on them.  

In the end, after many failed attempts at other locations, the elephant found a good home at an elephant sanctuary.  The sanctuary noticed that Zora slipped into bad behavior every time the zookeeper visited.  An animal expert diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress syndrome.  The expert guessed that it started when Zora was a baby and witnessed her mother being killed when she was captured and continued throughout her life as she was shipped from one facility to another; bonding with a new owner only to be abused by them and then shipped to another location.  Whenever the zookeeper visited he brought up all these old feelings in Zora and she slipped back into old habits.  Once they recognized this pattern, the sanctuary did not allow the zookeeper to visit any more.  

The zookeeper never stopped thinking about himself.  Even as he watched videos of Zora coming out of her shell and learning to be an elephant and heard everything the experts were saying, he missed Zora and he wanted to see her again.  He had developed a number of medical problems and hoped that this would make the sanctuary feel sorry for him and let him see Zora one more time before he died.  At the end of the documentary it had been 9 years since the zookeeper had seen Zora.  Unlike the zookeeper, the sanctuary did what was best for Zora and never let him see her again.  The zookeeper continues to do shows with elephants despite his experience with Zora and his declining health.  

The postscript at the end of the movie listed a handful of countries that no longer allow elephants at their zoos and in some cases, no wild animals at all.  The United States is not one of those countries and probably never will be.  We seem to thrive on turning nature into our entertainment.  So many reality shows and circuses where people try to manipulate nature (Grizzly Man, Sea World, etc.) are popular here and they almost always have a horrific end.  But no matter how many people get injured or killed by the animals that they have raised we continue to make excuses.  We often blame the animal for being too wild and then have it euthanized.  At no point do we consider that these sort of shows shouldn't exist at all.   In a perfect world the only places where people could visit wild animals would be at sanctuaries and safaris.   

No comments:

Post a Comment