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Sorting out

Rob Atkinson

Elephants in zoos and circuses are visitors’ favourites, but they are not always kindly-treated.

“You know they’re kind of square-ish triangles, don’t you? The jaw bones make the bottom angles and that big lump on the crown makes the top. And the sides and the front are flat.”

“Yes,” I said, wondering why Steve was describing an elephant’s head. “A massive great cube-triangle.”

An American zoo veterinarian of international reputation, Steve was sixty, tall and confident with a goatee beard and a Californian suntan. He was used to public speaking and television interviews, but now he was evasive, grappling with something uncomfortable. We were sitting at the end of a table in a pizza restaurant in downtown Kansas City, part of a group of animal activists, surrounded by laughter and light and good people. But Steve was shutting out all of that, and leaning towards me. He spoke quietly.

“Well this one’s head wasn’t square, and it wasn’t grey like it should be, either. She didn’t look right. I knew it as soon as I saw her, the morning after it happened.”

“What was wrong, Steve?”

“Her head was purple. And it was round, like a plum-coloured pumpkin. There were wounds on it and she kept putting her trunk up to touch them. She didn’t move right, kind of slow. Normally she would’ve moved quickly—she was only nineteen, a teenager.”

I knew what was coming next. After thirteen years of work with captive elephants I’d met enough disturbed elephant handlers to know the story.

“They hit her for at least two days, maybe more, in the mornings before the public came in. Chained all four legs and pulled her over with a winch, then set to with axe handles—afterwards one said they’d been using home-run swings, like in baseball. The keepers had to take rests ‘cause their arms and hands hurt so much.”

“Do you know why they did it?”—though I knew why. Many zoo elephants are traumatized and dangerous to humans. Because elephants breed so poorly in captivity, and because they live only half as long as they would in the wild, zoos buy baby elephants from dealers in Africa and Asia, where they are separated from their mothers and then through deprivation, chaining and beating made tractable and saleable. They are then exported to the world’s zoos where, confined to enclosures one ten-thousandth the size of their ranges in the wild, eighty per cent of them become lame, as lame as factory farmed chickens.

“She was difficult to handle, dangerous, like so many of them are, so they beat her to break her spirit and make her easier to manage.”

“What happened to her? I asked.

“There was a hell of a fuss at the zoo. The city council got involved and activist groups too, but there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute for cruelty. She was moved out to a bigger park, and then eventually she went to Ashtree Zoo.”

Ashtree is one of a handful of zoos known for its progressive attitude towards elephants. Elephants are self-aware in a way that had long been thought to separate humans from animals, and they have the capacity for great joy and great sorrow. When an elephant dies its family will stand quietly over the body as if in mourning, and they may cover the body with vegetation. They will pick up the bones of their kin whilst ignoring those of other species. At Ashtree, the keepers understood their duty to such emotionally complex beings, and did their best to fulfil it.

“I’ve seen her there,” I said. “She’s looking good. A proper husbandry program, no more sharp metal hooks to force obedience, no more axe handles. Just great keepers who try and give her an elephant’s life instead of a prisoner’s.”

Steve looked down at his half-finished pizza. “She’s OK now, kind of. As well as any elephant can be after that. I just wished I’d been able to stop it happening.”

Steve, a junior veterinarian at the time, had been sidelined when the zoo’s management authorized the beating, a pattern often followed when there’s someone on the team who wouldn’t approve. The head keeper makes a convincing case to the zoo’s director that the rogue elephant will wreck the herd’s dynamics, and that it’s in the elephant’s own interests—if she doesn’t behave she’ll end up in solitary confinement, and no-one will be able to go in with her any more, to look after her feet or give her medication. The head keeper knows how to seal his bid:

“If we don’t sort her out, someone’s going to get killed.”

The director, with a hundred other things to worry about, sees the zoo’s good name tarnish. He doesn’t want any of his staff killed, especially when he’s been told so clearly that there’s a way to avoid it. And, after all, he doesn’t really know what “sort her out” means, hasn’t heard this euphemism that is so common amongst elephant keepers. He’s told what will happen: that the elephant will be pulled onto her side to teach her she’s not as strong as she thinks she is; he sees the logic. He’s told that if she lashes out with her trunk then that dangerous behavior will have to be curtailed. This elephant’s a bully, and he knows the only thing that bullies respond to. He acquiesces.

I’d heard many stories like Steve’s, of a beating with baseball bats that went on for eight hours, of an elephant rammed and crippled by a tractor. The worst was of a female tortured as only a female can be, with a steel brush connected to an electricity supply. How many of these tales are true I cannot say, but I have witnessed too much to make me wary of dismissing all or even most of them. I’ve seen the aftermath to a training session, when an elephant urinated in fear and blood ran down her trunk and flanks. Even regular training of elephants, rather than the last resort “sorting out” exercises, leaves its visible trace—the holes in the trunk where the metal hook was used too vigorously, and the way an elephant reacts when a keeper puts their hand in a pocket. The elephant remembers the last time that happened and an electric cattle prod was produced.

Some of these trainers are hard men, not caring about the real identity of the animals they are charged with looking after, or of what elephants really need to lead fulfilled lives. But most join starry-eyed, and then are swept along in a system of elephant management 4,000 years old that bestows considerable prestige on those who become expert, those able to handle even dangerous elephants safely. But very few keepers reach this level. Traditional elephant handling is a tough and dangerous job. There is great pressure placed on new recruits to do what is expected—they must not back down nor let the elephant establish dominance. I have met elephant keepers at the beginnings of their careers, so shy they could hardly meet my eye, who within months were bristling with misplaced bravado, and using the same language as the old timers—all set to “sort out” the miscreants and “teach them good manners”. They are driven to meet the expectations of the lead keeper, who dominates them as they are expected to dominate the elephant. Meanwhile, the elephant watches the hierarchy amongst the keepers unfold; there is a widely held view amongst elephant handlers that it’s usually the junior keepers who are attacked.

Only the hardened keep going with the brutal methods, and many keepers leave when their consciences get the better of them. Some become trapped in a loop of self-loathing and self-justification, wanting to move on whilst needing to stay and redeem themselves. John was one such. I met him at a conference at a zoo at the end of the nineties, just when the battle lines were finally being drawn between traditionalists and those demanding change. At John’s request we arranged to meet in a café away from the conference hall where the other delegates were taking their break. At that time it mattered who you were seen talking to.

I arrived first and John joined me in the queue. He was pale, rather short and slight, with fair hair gelled back. His hands were thrust into the pockets of his jacket. He seemed wary—my disapproval of hardcore training methods was by this time well-known in the elephant keeping community—and when I asked what he wanted to drink he hesitated, as if he were being offered a bribe.

“I’ll get these, John. Why don’t you find somewhere to sit?”

I joined him at the table he’d chosen, which was as far away from other tables as he could get, and partially shielded by the imitation jungle vines that decorated the café’s walls. He waited until I’d sat down and put his coffee in front him, then started talking.

“I hate the bastards!” John was sitting bent over in his chair, his hands in front of him as if simultaneously asking for forgiveness and ready to defend himself. He looked angry and desolate.


“Because I’ve seen what they do… but I’m not telling you!”

“There’s no need to, John. But why do you want to work with elephants? Apart from anything else, it’s fifty times more dangerous than the average job!”

“I want to do the right thing,” he answered.

“There’s always room for improvement. We all make mistakes.” Conversation with this haunted young man was difficult, forcing platitudes.

“I didn’t make any mistakes! We had to do it! You can’t let elephants get the better of you, you’ve got to sort them out!”

There it was again.

Sort them out?” I asked.

“I said I’m not telling you! I could tell you… I’m not going to! I’ve seen things that would make your hair stand on end but…”

“You’re not telling me, right?”

At the time, I simply couldn’t understand how fear-based training of elephants could be contemplated. Those who supported it were a minority, their approach at odds with standards of basic decency let alone modern animal training practice. But I think I am wiser now. Although very few elephant trainers are genuinely cruel, many, like John, have done cruel things, seemingly abandoning the morals that control their behavior in other parts of their lives. I realize now that at least sometimes they were driven by a belief that what they were doing was right, and that in most cases it was a belief forced into them. The eminent theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, when contemplating why good people do evil things, concluded “religion”, but maybe Richard Dawkins has the more complete response, albeit to a different thesis. Supplementing his own famous quote that anyone who didn’t believe in evolution was ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked, Dawkins added a fifth category: “characterized by a word like tormented, bullied, or brainwashed. Sincere people who are not ignorant, not stupid, and not wicked can be cruelly torn, almost in two.

When I left the zoo world in the late nineties it was to reassurances that all was changing, yet afterwards I heard of incidents that intimated that the tormenters were still active. The 5a.m. phone call to my hotel room in Costa Rica from a former colleague in the UK, that a young male elephant had just been viciously “sorted out”, the whisper from another that a newborn baby was already being lined up for separation from its mother for training… I thought that at least the supply of elephants from the wild was declining, owing to public disapproval, so maybe elephants in captivity would dwindle too, and with them the pointless horror of their existences. But on 8th January 2015 the Independent announced that the Zimbabwe government was about to sell and ship sixty-two baby elephants. Over the last two decades, more than a thousand elephants have been exported to the world’s zoos.

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