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Beatings, Abuse : Elephants in Captivity: a Dark Side

October 05, 1988|JANE FRITSCH | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Painted and bejeweled, they parade through the streets of India, prodded by their proud mahouts. In the jungles of Asia, laden with chains, they uproot trees and trudge miles in the heat. At zoos and circuses across the United States, they give rides to delighted children, kneel over their trainers and even form conga lines.

Throughout history, man has sought dominance over the elephant and, to most Americans, they seem like agreeable and docile creatures.

But dominance over the Earth's largest land animal has a hidden side. Behind the scenes, elephant handlers sometimes employ surprisingly brutal methods. Beatings, starvation, electric shock and, if all else fails, months or years of isolation are among the tools used by some elephant handlers to control the animals.

Dwindling Numbers

Now, with herds dwindling in the wilds of Asia and Africa, the care and handling of elephants in captivity is coming under increasing scrutiny. Asian elephants are an endangered species, while African elephants are considered threatened, a less urgent but still serious classification.

Many who study and care for elephants have come to believe that the last refuge for the beasts may be Western zoos and wildlife parks, where their hope for survival rests with fledgling captive breeding programs.

Whether American elephant handlers are equipped to assume that role--and whether they can accomplish it humanely--are questions that have stirred considerable debate, particularly among elephant handlers themselves, a group known as much for its differences of opinion as for its pachyderm-size egos.

"It's a mess," said Roland Smith, assistant director of the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash. "The basic problem is that there is no place where anybody really goes to learn how to work elephants. We hire keepers and we give them sticks and we tell them they're elephant guys.

Sees No Need for Cruelty

"I believe you can keep elephants in captivity without brutalizing them, but you have very few people who know what they're doing, meaning people who use their minds. . . . People need to get together in the zoo community and drop their egos at the door. It will be years before it's resolved."

John Lehnhardt, elephant collection manager at the National Zoo in Washington, said he thinks zoos historically have done a "lousy job" of managing elephants. "I really felt there was no consensus of any kind on how you handle elephants at zoos," Lehnhardt said.

The feeling is shared, he added, by many of the trainers and handlers who care for the estimated 400 elephants in North American zoos and another 200 to 300 in the hands of circuses and other private owners. In an attempt to impose some order on the world of elephant keeping, Lehnhardt and others organized their first annual elephant workshop eight years ago.

Although still loosely coordinated, the conferences for the first time have brought together circus trainers, zookeepers and private owners who exchange opinions as well as information. This year, the workshop will be held in December in Jacksonville, Fla.

Over the last eight years, the level of care at zoos has improved dramatically, Lehnhardt said, in part because of the conferences and in part because zoos have begun to bring in elephant consultants to advise them on care.

Still, the conferences have been a disappointment to some who believe elephant keepers should establish standards for training, feeding, discipline and medical care and eventually the more difficult tasks of captive breeding.

So far, the handlers have taken only the first steps toward consensus, agreeing to standardize 15 or so basic verbal commands such as "No," "Come here," "Down" and "Heel." Keepers throughout North America, the conference leaders hope, will learn the commands and use them consistently to keep from confusing the elephants. High turnover among trainers as well as elephant trades among zoos, circuses and private owners make it unlikely that an elephant will be in the care of the same person for more than a few years.

The keepers themselves are a disparate lot who are not reluctant to express contempt for each other. "There's kind of an old saying," said keeper Jim Sanford of the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Ore. " 'You can't get any two of them to agree on anything except what the third guy is doing wrong.' "

Source of Experience

Many elephant keepers are former carnival hands who learned their trade at roadside shows, under the big top of major circuses, or, more recently, at American theme parks. They work side by side with young graduate students and miscellaneous zoo employees whose only experience with animals may have been driving the tour bus at the zoo.

"Nobody teaches Elephant 101," Sanford said. "If you want to do it, you just start hanging around with people who do it."

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