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Couple Campaigns Against the Ivory Trade : A Personal Protest to Save the Elephant

June 12, 1986|PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writer

In Bernard Sandler's Brentwood backyard, the family dogs, rescued from the pound, loll in the sun-warmed grass.

The mice that once gnawed at the wood frame of the hot tub now eat the apples laid out to distract them. The brown ants invading through a crack on the kitchen window sill get a daily food ration to keep them at bay.

And now there is a rather large creature whose life Sandler, a Hollywood agent turned producer and businessman, and his wife, actress Lori Saunders, are campaigning to save: the African elephant.

A Personal Campaign

With all the "push" learned from his deal-cutting days, Sandler has upended his daily routine to set in motion a personal protest campaign: phone calls, petitions, ads and letters to Congress, Ronald Reagan, department stores, "60 Minutes" and the Interior Department, all to stop what he calls "the unconscionable slaughter," for the sake of "a few buttons and trinkets," of the dwindling African elephant--an animal that buries its dead and whose only natural enemy is man.

"Who could be in favor of an act that's so unconscionable?" he asked. "How can you find a rationale for taking the life of a highly intelligent animal, a threatened animal, that mourns the loss of its children, and cries, and communicates with others, for mere decoration?"

Sandler was stirred by a Times article about how ivory imports to California have increased since a stringent state prohibition on the ivory was overridden by a more lenient federal import law.

"It's become a compulsion," he said with a rueful smile, "but I can live with it."

"I'm working on five movies, a game show deal, (my) greeting card company, real estate, and half my time is going to the elephant ivory issue," he said. "I don't think of myself as a staunch animal activist, or a marcher for all the causes. I think of myself as a good hard-nosed businessman who realizes you can do both."

So Bernie Sandler, who can pick up a telephone and dial his share of the biggest unlisted numbers in town, has stood in front of a Century City department store which sells ivory jewelry, collecting signatures from passers-by (and even some store employees).

Bernie Sandler, who once made three-picture deals the way some people make toast for breakfast, has coaxed support from friends--like actors William Shatner and Peter Strauss. Both his 77-year-old mother and actor Martin Kove, who plays the beefcake detective Isbecki on "Cagney and Lacey," joined the protest, returning their credit cards to stores that sell ivory.

All Angles Covered

But his full-steam-ahead Hollywood networking approach, covering all the angles, has not yet knocked 'em dead on this topic, which has reverberations in politics, merchandising and international trade.

"I came in wide-eyed--I thought it'd be easy, just a matter of informing people," he said wonderingly. "Why does it take so much to make people realize what is so obvious? This should have been such a slam-dunk. . . . I won't quit till I get this thing passed."

He toyed with a small yellow plastic elephant as he spoke. Sandler is a believer in subtle omens; each time he has gotten frustrated, something has bolstered his spirits. This elephant, for example, he found lying by his car as he came out of a theater one night. Last week, a news magazine arrived with an elephant on its cover.

One Can Make a Difference

Sandler's social consciousness first bestirred him from his "self-indulgent" life style in the late 1970s when his wife turned down a lucrative cigarette commercial, telling him, "I refuse to sell death."

"That was the first time," Sandler said, "that I realized an individual could make a difference. You don't have to give up your life and go on a crusade; the crusade can be woven in your life."

This year, they formed and funded the "For Love of Life Foundation," which creates camera-ready professional-quality ads on animal welfare issues, for the free use of animal groups nationwide.

Even his new greeting card line shows animals on the front, with quotes like Thomas Edison's: "Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages."

And anyone who drops by the house gets tutored on elephant ivory, with a current "National Geographic" article, including a photo of poached elephants slaughtered by automatic rifles, lying bloodied on the African plains, their trunks chopped off, their huge bodies abandoned.

Tusks Don't Grow Back

"Many people I've talked to were very surprised to find elephants are killed for ivory. They think they're dropped like antlers, or pruned off them like trees. I doubt if people knew how they were killed, to get a few buttons and trinkets, if they'd want to buy it or wear it any more. Is anything worth that ghastly slaughter?" he asked, waving the photo.

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