When Helen Aberson Mayer wrote “Dumbo” in 1939, the story of a baby elephant born on a circus train, bullied because of his big ears, separated from his mom and made to perform dangerous circus stunts, she surely was not aware of the dark themes her story included.
Rather, hers was a story about triumph over adversity. New York film critic Bosley Crowther touted the original movie as “a picture which touches the very heart of sentiment .. .and leaves you with the warmest glow.” But in the real world, elephants often face treatment sorely lacking in heart, sentiment or warmth.
As I write this column, 35 baby elephants have been snatched from their mothers in Zimbabwe, a practice in African countries since 2012. The babies, some as young as 2 1/2, are being held in pens at Hwang National Park awaiting shipment to zoos in China.
The HSUS has witnessed them pacing back and forth, their eyes and ears wide in terror, as their mothers grieve for them at home. One high ranking official from Zimbabwe was quoted as saying, “We don’t care about wildlife … we want cash.”
At the same time, Botswana is currently considering lifting a ban on trophy hunting, and possibly using elephant meat to make pet food.
Some, however, have seen things differently. In 1920, English WWI veteran James Howard Williams went to work in Burma as a forest manager for the British teak harvesting industry. He soon developed a profound affection and respect for the elephants who worked for him.
Within a few years, “Elephant Bill,” as he was later known, developed nurseries that kept moms and babies together. This, in turn, kept companies from having to recruit young elephants in the wild, separating them from their families. Williams also put an end to the brutal, spirit-breaking training called “kheddaring,”a practice even the “uzis” (elephant handlers) hated, but that no one had ever thought to change.
Williams recognized the deep and lasting bonds elephants formed with one another. On one particular day, the company had to return to camp to gather one of the females who had been left at camp because her bonded female friend was refusing to go on without her.
In their natural habitats, elephant babies aren’t weaned until they’re 5 years old. Mothers, aunts and sisters surround females giving birth to protect them, and they help in raising the young. At the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, researchers have witnessed and recorded these events for years. When baby Ely was born with his front feet twisted backward, the entire family stayed put while his mom and sister cared for him until he could walk.
And when little Grace, born 4 months premature (elephant gestation is 22 months) died, her mom stayed with her body for 4 days.
Later this month, a remake of the 1941 Disney movie “Dumbo” (a la Tim Burton) is due out. I believe that if we are going to take advantage of our animal relatives to satiate our appetites for entertainment, profit and “warm glows,” we have an obligation to know the truth about them in their real lives, and to show them our respect and consideration.
I invite you to visit the Amboseli Elephant Trust on line, and to read the amazing story of Bill Williams in Vicki Constantine Croke’s 2014 book, “Elephant Company.”
Next month, the somewhat brighter future regarding circus animals.
Thanks for reading; be well.