Zoo Rant: A tale of Two Elephants

I was walking down the street in Jhalakthi, Bangladesh, when an elephant asked me for a dollar bill.

The elephant’s snout was smeared with red paint and two smiling locals sat atop his back.  The crowded streets managed to make way for the elephant. Kids smiled and pointed. Rickshaw drivers piled on the sidewalk.

They all stared at me.  The tiny proboscis at the end of the elephant’s trunk wiggled with anticipation.

I reached into my pocket, pulled out some money, and the elephant ever so gently picked it from my hand.

I pitied the elephant.  She was trapped in a life of cheap tricks and crowded streets. I can still see the coarse black hairs bristling her trunk.  I can hear her breath and see her snotty snout.

This weekend I was reminded of the elephant on a visit to the Indianapolis Zoo with Annie, Harper, my brother, and his wife.  At the elephant show, the trainers picked a boy out of the crowd.  To demonstrate the dexterity of its trunk, they instructed the boy to hold up a dollar bill for the elephant to grab.

Harper watched.  She hasn’t been exposed to many types of animals other than our cat Oreo. I imagined her thinking, “That’s the biggest kitty I’ve ever seen.”

Everyone clapped as the elephant handed the dollar to the trainer.  In Bangladesh the riders atop the elephant stuffed their shirt pockets with the money, but the zookeeper gave the dollar back to the boy.

At the end of the show, as the elephant and trainer alike waved to the crowd, the elephant took a dump. Everyone laughed.

I felt sorry for the elephant.

I’ve always felt sorry for animals at the zoo, but assured myself the difference between animals at the zoo and the Bangladeshi elephant walking down the street asking for money was that the zoo raised awareness.

The zoo animals are ambassadors for their wild kin. We see the beauty, even if caged, in the zoo animals and project that to the savannas of Africa, the reefs of Australia, the jungles of South America.  Many of us will never see an elephant in the wild, but we can at the zoo.  The zoo can help us give a darn about a shrinking rainforest, poaching, dying habitats, and dying species.

The zoo can help, but does it?

This weekend the Indianapolis zoo did not.

After watching the elephant perform its tricks, the trainers informed us that there was a way we could help the elephants around the world.  I waited.  How can I help the elephants? I’m ready. And then they told us how…

“Unplug your cell phone charger when not in use.”

That’s it? That’s the big message? I don’t think it’s a coincident that the elephant punctuated the message with a big pile of poop.

I was telling a friend about this and we were trying to figure out how plugged in cell phone chargers threatened elephants.  Sure, there is the energy equals greenhouse gases equals lost habitat relationship, but that’s pretty distant, especially for a kid.  My buddy suggested that some cell phone chargers in cars can catch fire and that if you had an elephant in your car, the fire might kill the elephant.

After the elephant show we went to the dolphin show.  There we were greeted by a message asking for money that was the equivalent of an elephant reaching for a dollar bill. At the show’s end we were left with the same “unplug your cell phone charger” message.

I was ashamed for the zoo.  I was ashamed for my $28 that I handed to the teller at the gate.

I’m not against elephants performing in zoos. Some are, including Lily Tomlin. But I am against elephants performing in zoos that don’t take advantage of the opportunity to educate thousands of daily visitors how they can help the elephants.

Really it’s the same thing I ask of the anti-sweatshop activists: Tell us why we should care and then tell us how.

Ways to help the elephants aren’t hard to find. Here’s one.

Here’s another.  Send this letter to the Indianapolis Zoo at publicrelations@indyzoo.com :

I love going to the zoo, but I was disappointed when I read an account of your dolphin and elephant shows on author Kelsey Timmerman’s blog www.whereamiwearing.com.

Kelsey was frustrated that you didn’t make much of an effort to encourage conservation beyond “unplug your cell phone chargers when they are not in use.”  I hope that you’ll revise your message to encourage your visitors to do more.

Zoos should play an important role in educating our children about shrinking rainforests, poaching, dying habitats, and dying species.  Zoos have the opportunity to connect us with animals from around the world and empower us to champion their cause.  It’s an opportunity that should not be wasted.

Update 7/8: The Zoo Responds

Dear Mr. Timmerman:
First, I want to thank you for your thoughtful message regarding the Zoo’s promotion of unplugging unused appliances.  With your own wide experience of animals and habitats worldwide, your perspective is certainly of interest.  I would like to express, however, our feelings and the reasons behind our program, both of which may give you a better understanding of what we’re doing – and hopefully, a more complete picture.
Certainly, African elephants face multiple pressures beyond a rapidly warming climate, including poaching and human-animal conflicts. We are working hard to deal with those issues as well. I sit on the Board of Directors of the International Elephant Foundation, the largest foundation in the world devoted solely to the welfare of elephants in the wild and in human care.  Through the IEF, the Indianapolis Zoo has put more than $500,000 into the field in the last 10 years to protect elephants.  In addition to IEF, we are working with the Tarangire Elephant Project in Tanzania to keep the remaining migration corridors into and out of Tarangire National Park open and safe for the fastest growing population of elephants on the African continent.  Our concern for elephants extends beyond Africa.  We have sent our professional keeper and veterinary staff into the field in Sumatra to provide care for Asian elephants that have been displaced into special camps.
In addition, the Indianapolis Zoo supports elephant conservation directly through our own research initiatives, through our many educational programs, and through the Indianapolis Prize.  The Prize is a biennial award to an outstanding animal conservationist and consists of a $100,000 award and the Lilly Medal.  Two Prizes have been awarded to date, the first in 2006 to International Crane Foundation co-founder Dr. George Archibald and the second in 2008 to legendary field biologist Dr. George Schaller.  The Prize structure offers tremendous media support to all of its nominees, and especially to the six finalists from whom the winner is selected.  In both of its first two cycles, Iain Douglas-Hamilton has been a finalist and has received our support through the Prize web site, news releases, direct links to Save the Elephants, an outreach program at the Zoo with audio recordings of Iain’s message, collector cards for kids with Save the Elephants information, and more.  Iain is a long time friend of the Zoo, and he attended both the Prize Galas here in Indianapolis.  We continue our support of Iain’s work in Kenya and will do so into the foreseeable future.  In addition to our daily elephant chats and shows, we also feature our elephants during our annual Elephant Awareness Week special event.
That being said let me get to your point about the message to save “phantom” power by unplugging unused appliances.  Several years ago, we decided to expand our messaging about the impact of climate change on wildlife.  It’s a big subject that’s sometimes hard to get your hands around.  Our thought process was that one method to make a quick, memorable impression on the maximum number of people was to break down actions into small, imminently doable tasks, the cumulative effect of which would make a real difference.
Nearly two years ago, we began an initiative called My Carbon Pledge, wherein we could promote pro-environmental messages in a sustained way, one at a time, over many months.  We began last year with a message to switch out incandescent light bulbs for the more energy efficient CLFs.  This year, we are promoting unplugging appliances, which can save consumers about 10% of their electric bill and remove 1% of CO2 emissions for that household.  Next year, we will tackle another simple method to remove CO2 from our atmosphere.  Why is such a seemingly small impact important?
Climate change may not be the most pressing problem facing some wildlife today, but that could change very quickly. Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and Finalist for the 2006 Indianapolis Prize recently wrote that, “Unless we address the fundamental causes of unsustainability on our planet, the lofty goals of governments to reduce extinction rates will count for nothing.”
That is a warning that has been issued for a number of years now.  Consider what Dr. Richard Leaky, former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, had to say about the issue of climate change and African elephants in 2005.
“We can spend money trying to stop poaching, but there’s no point in doing that if the stuff in there is going anyway,” he noted in a BBC interview. “If the concern is symbolic species, there may well be a bigger threat from climate change than from utilization and poaching. Protected areas are now islands, said Dr Leakey. “The wildlife and fauna and flora are pretty well tied in by boundaries which aren’t oceans, in the sense of islands, but development.”
“And if there’s significant climate change, as is predicted, what’s going to happen to these areas? Paleontologically, island faunas become extinct.”
Indiana emits CO2 on an internationally important scale.  The eight states that comprise the Midwest, including Indiana, collectively are the fifth largest emitter of CO2 on the planet, exceeded only by China, India, Japan, and Europe. That means we are a big part of the problem, but more importantly a big part of the solution to dealing with climate change.  Asking Hoosiers to take whatever steps at their disposal, no matter how small and insignificant they might seem, to reduce CO2 emissions is an important conservation action – for not only the African elephant but many other species as well.
When it comes to a household like yours making a contribution to elephant conservation there are really two alternatives for you to consider: 1) donate money; and/or 2) cut your CO2 emissions. Asking folks to do the former is a bit of a hard sell in today’s economy.  Asking you to reduce your electrical usage to curb CO2 emissions is something even the most modest household can participate in and feel good about.
I hope that helps you to understand that there is more going on here than just a message about unplugging appliances.  If you are so inclined, I would certainly recommend visiting the web site, www.mycarbonpledge.com <http://www.mycarbonpledge.com> . There’s loads of information about climate change and its effects.  I especially recommend the articles posted by our contributors – it’s fascinating stuff.

Again, thanks for writing and supporting the Zoo.

Paul Grayson, Deputy Director and Senior VP of Conservation & Science

Add a comment
Matt Barhorst says:

To illustrate the point, they really should have had the elephant shit on a cell phone charger.

Kelsey says:

Matt, you are a master of symbolism. You should be an artist or a zookeeper or perhaps and artist zookeeper. Then you could sculpt an elephant out of poo pooping on a cellphone charger.

Rhonda Palmer says:

I liked the zoo letter. A minimum of sarcasm and a maximum of heartfelt. Zoo people are a generally good lot. I’m sure unplugging my cell phone charger!!

Trisha says:

Nice that they responded at all, extra-nice that they took time to craft an articulate and thoughtful explanation. I would give them extra credit, though, if they would have their staff give a briefer version of the above explanation to zoo visitors, so that families like yours can make sense of such a seemingly random suggestion as “unplug your cell phone charger”, and maybe even offer a choice – do your bit to help reduce carbon emissions OR donate to the IEF if you’d rather leave your appliances plugged in.

Kelsey says:

Rhonda, I was very impressed with the letter too. I do agree with Trisha. It’s no surprise that the head of conservation at the zoo can deliver a convincing case of “unplug your cell phone” but it also needs to happen where the rubber meets the road.

Paul genuinely cares and the zoo is trying to balance “show” and “tell” and “entertainment” and “message,” which is never easy.

I think the demographic that the zoo should consult are 8-12 year old kids. I would be interested to know what they walk away with.

Let your voice be heard!