An e-mail posting on the Natural history E-group two weeks ago contained a link to the HBO documentary film “Apology to Elephants”. Following an online debate about animal rights being different from wildlife conservation, it made interesting and pertinent content for the group. It is - as the title suggests - a film about cruelty to elephants during training and other forms of captivity like circus elephants’ abuse. The visuals and script are powerful enough to move any agnostic cynic to tears. It has since been taken offline on You Tube India for copyright reasons, but a summary in text can be found on: http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/an-apology-to-elephants/synopsis.html

There are visuals of how baby elephants are weaned from their mothers days after birth, and crammed into small kraals to be literally shipped across the oceans to the Americas for entertainment in circuses. The trainers hit the baby elephants whose four legs are tied to chains; they beat the young elephants with batons on their forehead. It moves you to tears when you see the baby elephants trying to duck the baton-wielding trainer’s sharp blows on its forehead. Unspeakably cruel forms of captive training are shown in the film. Elephants are hooked and chained, pierced cruelly only to dent their ego and self respect and get them to obey humans. Does a human trainer’s ego inflate on subjugation of wild animals with unspeakable cruelty? Imagine the hurt and diffidence, the emotion of the baby elephants watching the applause of the circus audience to the trainer who “achieves” the obedience of the wild animals by beating them and their self esteem mercilessly.


A baby elephant being trained for the circus. Photo was used in protests by PETA against the Ringling Bros. Circus in July 2010. Pic: www.peta.org 

The wide prevalence of cruelty to animals

Although these elephants in the film are African elephants, cases of animal abuse are not rare in India and Asia either. In India, wildlife activists will vouch for many situations when they have been called in for animal rescues but such incidents escape the attention of the mainstream media because in a TRP-obsessed television industry, wildlife issues are no match for an IPL scandals or analysis of the political morass in the country.

The bears, monkeys snakes elephants and camels rescued by animal rights activists tell tales of unparalleled woe. Snakes used by snake charmers are defanged and their mouths sewn up. They are fed milk and though it is completely alien diet for the reptiles, they sip on milk for three hapless weeks in a desperate bid for survival only to succumb to a miserable death. Anthropologists who defend the rights of tribes or “indigenous people” are unable to answer what makes the snake catchers bury the snakes underground in their urban slums. The fantastic alibi that “the tribes possess traditional wisdom of how to bury snakes alive” does not hold water with either conservationists or in a court of law, especially after raids yielded hundreds of dead snake seizures, in urban slums in places like Bangalore two decades ago.

Bears are rescued from hawkers or circuses in appalling conditions. Bears captured to perform have their jaws sealed in steel traps, or worse, in some cases, their mouths are sewn up without anaesthesia. You feed a dancing bear a fruit, it can only sniff and salivate but cannot open its mouth to eat. Malnourished bears tethering on starvation suffer from skin disorders and low blood count, fatigue and paw injuries apart from the injuries inflicted by the jaw traps. Ropes criss-cross the rear of the throat and nostrils to hold them on leash. Even if the jaw traps are removed for the night, the ropes often prevent food consumption.

Perhaps the only way that circus companies can be discouraged, and abuse in the name of training obliterated, is by phasing out economic support to such practices, by avoiding visits to circuses that use animals. Legal bans have not worked but hopefully, social and economic ostracism will.


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Elephants are paraded on tar roads in residential areas where the hawkers seek bananas for the elephants’ feed and end up eating it themselves, starving the pachyderms to death. Elephants are chained right from a very young age to get them to obey, and to earn their food. The chains tear into the flesh on their legs, often causing open wounds and even gangrene. Elephants are subjugated into obedience by being fed jaggery or brown sugar. Enslavement is guaranteed. The hooks used by Mahouts to ensure obedience cause raw wounds behind their ears and the batons slamming their foreheads create headaches and possibly  even internal injuries like clots in their brains. But because these mute wildlife cannot protest in a language we can understand, human beings turn a blind eye to all forms of cruelty being perpetrated.

Chinese obsession with traditional medicine results in cruel torture - for example, in letting a mongoose fight a caged cobra or slitting live snakes to harvest adrenaline for Far East Asian markets, slaughtering pythons for instant soups and the like. China’s private tiger farms ridicule wildlife conservation and mock animal rights at one go. The tiger farms are dedicated solely for harvesting tiger parts like bones, skins, nails, whiskers, flesh, penis etc of the highly endangered tigers. That any poacher of the Giant Panda in China gets death penalty speaks of the forked- tongue attitude towards conservation and the lack of enforcement against wildlife crime in China.

There used to be a morbid defence of tiger farms and captive bred wildlife: because poaching is so widespread and enforcement is so weak, only zoo bred animals and circus creatures will outlive the rapid species extinction that this era is witness to. But captive bred wildlife like zoo animals and circus creatures have had to abdicate all their ecological responsibilities.

A few years ago a tiger roamed into a “human settlement inside the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve”. It was captured and in an attempt to relocate it to Bhadra Tiger Reserve, 300 odd kilometres away, it died. Another handsome adult male tiger was trapped by poachers in the same Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. It was injured; “villagers” in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve reported the injured tiger, it was ‘rescued’ from near death and rehabilitated into captivity, incarceration in the Mysore Zoo effectively ending its ecological role.

The history of cruelty to animals goes back a long time too. The unspeakable acts portrayed in the film include the surrender of a disobedient elephant for Thomas Edison’s electricity experiment, where its four legs are chained to separate lampposts and its trunk is chained elsewhere and it is singed in seconds by a powerful current passing through it. According to the HBO film, the elephant was disobeying the commands of the trainer and was punished with a cigarette butt. The elephant having burnt its trunk was so enraged that it killed the trainer. The owners immediately announced that the errant elephant had to be put down. Thomas Edison offered to prove his scientific invention on this hapless beast. This was filmed and the footage is used in Apology to Elephants.


A beautiful 'Sand Boa" lying dead on the forest floor. The snake's head was severed, an unnecessary killing of a harmless non-venomous snake by some villagers in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. Pic: Rudolph.A.furtado via Wikimedia

Man vs Beast

The film can be searched on You Tube; it is so macabre that it left me tearful and depressed. One cannot help but wonder if there isn’t a better way for human beings to establish their superior intelligence! It is truly despotic for a human being to sadistically kill an animal, more so  to prove one’s own invention. Can a human being become crueller and more selfish or more opportunistic? On what basis can such cruelty to mute wildlife be justified?

Of course millions of chicken, beef cattle, fish, sea creatures and even dogs and cats are slaughtered every day for food around the whole world. Much as it is against my own conviction, it has been condoned or justified for food even though none less than Albert Einstein remarked, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet”. Even so, hunting for the pot has been justified for generations. What is not acceptable is inhumane treatment while hunting for the pot.

Circus companies own bears, elephants, snakes, tigers, lions, dogs cats, birds, and other creatures... all of which are made to dance to the tunes of trainers, failing which they face physical retribution, torture, starvation and emotional abuse. Amusement parks display tricks with crocodiles, dolphins and killer whales. It seems higher the status/category of captured wildlife, higher is the judged success, which serves as an ego massage of the trainer. If the captured and trained beast is a higher mammal or pyramid species/carnivore, greater is the applause for the trainer: applause for subjugating a wild animal which was the king in its own turf.

The HBO film raises many questions about the self-assigned rights by humans to subjugate animals – even wildlife. Intelligent human beings assume a right to subordinate wildlife merely because the latter are incapable of protest. How can we condone this act of cruelty and barbarity? Sharks are pulled out of the ocean by hooks and the fishing companies’ staff cut the fins of the sharks and throw the shark back to the water where it bleeds to an agonisingly slow death. The bloody and sinful practise of whaling, continues despite being banned.

Circus visuals in “Apology to Elephants,” where elephants are made to stand on two hind legs, to skip, hop and jump with other ‘trained animals’ on inflated balls, settees and such, leave anyone with any degree of sensitivity deeply hurt. Visuals of training the animals stun and shock you. Perhaps the only way that circus companies can be discouraged and such practices obliterated is by phasing out economic support to such practices, by avoiding visits to circuses that use animals. Legal bans have not worked but hopefully, social and economic ostracism will.

There are further stark examples of animal abuse in the name of indigenous wisdom or tribal rights as can be seen in this video. It shows a man from an indigenous community protecting his leg and strutting it into a snake hole / burrow, ostensibly to put his entire leg into the mouth of the snake. Just as the snake starts the process of swallowing his leg, the man is pulled out and then the snake is beheaded and skinned alive. What makes the man burrow into a snake hole in the first place? What has he achieved by so cruelly ensnaring a snake in its hole? What made him slit the snake alive after trapping it in its burrow? Bloodlust. Should there be penalty for a tribal who so wantonly perpetrates unprovoked cruelty on a wild animal? Or should this be condoned in the name of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and wisdom?

"The whole concept of 'killing is both absurd and grotesque--it inflames the desire for 'blood and death', the 'triumph' of man's ego over the life of the animal so murdered. The other species on this planet are not here to be used and abused by humans. They are here as part of the intricate web of life that has evolved over millenia without human 'assistance' and in spite of human interference," says Pamela Gale Malhotra, a wildlife activist Trustee of the Save Animals Initiative - a wildlife NGO in the Western Ghats.

Other links to films on animal abuse are:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKVWfQrut-k
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=fvwp&NR=1&v=27nX3Dsv9Xk
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Shta2eotnBE
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=fvwp&NR=1&v=ozsRYDk_icI
http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=fvwp&v=uAlYORil5Os

The conservation question

Force-induced behaviour with threat to mute wildlife amounts to more than abuse of animals and misuse of human intelligence. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” Mahatma Gandhi had said. “Conservation, animal welfare and animal rights were indistinguishable in Emperor Ashoka's edicts” says Shubhobroto Ghosh, Author of Indian Zoo Inquiry.

The intellectual appeal and ethical tenets of Buddhism gave courage of conviction to Avanthi Sahabandhu, a Television producer in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She speaks from her heart in saying “When I saw many children with cancer at a very young age I wondered why God let it happen to innocent children and after a lot of introspection, I eventually concluded that it is the bondage of the sins of previous births... the KARMA tenet of Buddhism helped me understand that the sum total of the sins of our previous births is the primary cause of our miseries. Being an ardent animal lover I had no qualms in turning vegetarian, I am a Buddhist”.

But even apart from moral or spiritual grounds, a significant question begs attention. The need for conservation arose as a response to wanton, rampant poaching. Shark finning was originally dismissed as an animal rights issue. It did not become a conservation issue till such time that finning live sharks led to bloody deaths depleting their numbers drastically. That is when it became a conservation issue.

Poaching of animals has led to decimation of wildlife populations, skewing their sex ratios, leading to inbreeding, genetic maladies. Given the symbiotic relationship of the ecosystem and its wildlife, poaching has also altered the biodiversity profile. Habitat destruction has led to genetic isolation, inbreeding and decimation of endangered wildlife populations. In vouching for animal rights, we try to defend the animal from abuse. A captured animal is stripped of its ecological role and by protecting its rights not to be captured, we defend that ecological role, which again is one of the main objectives of conservation. So animal rights cannot be delineated from wildlife conservation. Looking at the cruelty of animal treatment in Oriental markets and circus companies it reminds you of the saying “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”