The Charge: Love, The Verdict: Life Imprisonment

I can’t forget the image of the elephant I saw in India standing under a tattered canvas, chained at his foot, and, well, just there. I was told that his owner loved him and that the elephant loved his owner. He loved him so much he trained him to obey; he chained him to control him.When I was a kid, I loved watching Tarzan on television.  It wasn’t just the adventure or the swinging from vines that made me love following Tarzan through the jungle; it was the interaction between Tarzan and his animal friends that really fascinated me.

Then, there was “boy”, the nameless little kid who, at some point, became Tarzan’s sidekick.  “Boy” had what arguably every kid in the world would want: animals for best friends.  We are not talking about little puppies here, we are talking about a kid riding around on a baby elephant, baby chimps jumping on his head, leopards running by his side and, basically, the whole animal kingdom at his beck and call.  That kid really loved those animals and they loved him.  Right?

At the International Fund for Animal Welfare, we often discuss the ethical dilemmas created by keeping animals in captivity.  While I was in New Delhi at the Elephant meeting, I learned that, in some Asian countries, up to thirty one percent of the elephant population is kept in captivity!  That doesn’t mean zoos; it means there are working elephants, elephants in temples and that people are keeping elephants as, well, I am not quite sure but they just have elephants.

In India, I heard over and over again that there is no animal more suited to have a close relationship with man than an elephant.  Deep down, I want to believe this because it would be a dream come true to call my best friend the elephant from the jungle and say, “let’s go for a ride.”  I wouldn’t need a heavy iron rod to force, or guide, my best friend as the mahoots do; I would simply call him by name, he would come running and then he would pick me up with his trunk, plop me on his back and suggest a route for our meander through the jungle.  We would argue with one another about the situation in the jungle but would always laugh at the end and, when he was tired, he would tell me to get lost and say, “see you tomorrow.”

I think a lot of people want that daydream to be true.  I hear so often about the special relationship that some people have with animals.  I hear people tell me that they know there are ethical issues associated with keeping animals in captivity, especially the animals that we consider highly intelligent like elephants and dolphins.

Often, those same people follow up that statement with, “but my animals love me and we have a special relationship.”  I want to believe that Flipper the dolphin really could be my best friend, come when I whistled and then spend the whole day playing with me in the ocean.  All the places that offer swimming with dolphin adventures make that dream come true.  But does Flipper really love me?

When it comes to elephants, the special relationship, the love if you will, comes with an iron rod and a chain on the side.  In India, I learned that perhaps there is a clash of culture and ethics at play.  And when I say that, I don’t mean an ethical or cultural struggle as a result of outside forces clashing with Indian forces, I mean within an Indian context.  Culturally, people love elephants and believe that elephants love them.  Ethically, people seemed conflicted about keeping elephants in captivity.

I can’t forget the image of the elephant I saw in India standing under a tattered canvas, chained at his foot, and, well, just there.  I was told that his owner loved him and that the elephant loved his owner.  He loved him so much he trained him to obey; he chained him to control him.  The owner was guilty of loving that elephant but the elephant was serving the life sentence.

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Comments: 4

7 years ago

A reply like that is just so hard to believe! How is it possible that someone loves money so much that he forsakes the sheer beauty and neccessity of nature!

7 years ago

I am planning a trip to India and Delhi in january next year. I would love to do voluntary work so if I can help in any way please let me know. my email address;
Thank you for all your work!

7 years ago

Thank you so much for the kind words. I am more and more convinced that so many of the problems we are facing come down to the simple question of whether or not we are willing to share the planet. I remember meeting a member of the Safari Club at a meeting and asked him if he wanted to ensure that there was wildlife for his grandchildren and he said, " I really don't care if they ever see an animal. I am here to make money."

7 years ago

As a South African, living here as I have all my rather long life, like most of us who have had the benefit of learning about our wonderful wild creatures and spending time in their natural places, I, and those like me, now view with increasing trepidation and anxiety, the threat to our indigenous original inhabitants and their environment. The law of the wild now seems to be that of voracious greedy humans who will stop at nothing to plunder and destroy what is most precious in our land. But then there are those whose concern goes further than the written word, who defend what they believe in the face of immense difficulties, who courageously tackle at the coalface so to speak the horrors and cruelty perpetrated by others. To them, the likes of Mr Downes and all those who give tirelessly of their time and devotion, one's gratitude can know no bounds. But we know that in all work dedicated to the welfare of animals, money is more important than anything, a fact of which I am well aware having been supportive of animal charities for most of my life. If everyone spent their small change this way, it would make a significant difference.

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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Joseph Okori
Regional Director, Southern Africa and Program Director, Landscape Conservation
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Peter LaFontaine, Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy