Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday Review: An Apology to Elephants (TV documentary)

An appropriate prologue

By Morris Dean

I suppose you regard inventor Thomas Edison more or less as I used to: you sort of revere him, or have a pretty favorable feeling toward him.
    But maybe you don't know, any more than I did before watching the 40-minute 2013 HBO documentary An Apology to Elephants (directed by Amy Schatz), that he used an unwanted circus elephant to demonstrate the danger of alternating-current electricity. He hooked the elephant up and promptly transformed the stately beast into a tower of toppling electrocutional light and smoke. It's a horrific segment of archival black-and-white footage shown in the documentary. Nice, Thomas E., how instructive....

    More about this from Wikipedia:
As part of [Edison's] campaign [to limit allowable AC voltage for safety purposes], Edison's employees publicly electrocuted stray or unwanted animals to demonstrate the dangers of AC...On one of the more notable occasions, in 1903, Edison's workers electrocuted Topsy, the elephant at Luna Park, near Coney Island, after she had killed several men, and her owners wanted her put to death. His company filmed the electrocution.
The "bull hook," used to push or pull
on an elephant's sensitive spots
    The documentary traces humankind's long history with elephants and explores how their being brought to live in captivity in zoos and circuses is inhumane in ways we never imagined when as children (and as parents of children) we enjoyed their performances in circuses, or just enjoyed seeing them in zoos that still handled these animals in ways injurious to their well-being. The documentary includes interviews with environmental activists and biologists, including Performing Animal Welfare Society co-founders Ed Stewart and Pat Derby. The film was dedicated to the latter, who died on February 15, 2013. Derby was also known as "the elephant lady."

    The documentary is narrated by Lily Tomlin, who, according to Wikipedia,
campaigned on the subject for several years, in the course of which she met Pat Derby, and later suggested that HBO make a movie about elephant captivity. HBO began work on the documentary in 2011. It was later joined by PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals], which offered pictures and video footage, including photos from a whistleblower depicting elephant training at the Ringling Bros circus.
    Because elephants are so intelligent, and gentle to people who bear them no ill, my own personal reaction to this film was very much like my friend William Silveira's reaction to the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave (directed by Steve McQueen). Bill wrote me:
The only film I've seen that had the same intense emotional impact on me was Schindler's List [1993, directed by Steven Spielberg, about the Nazi destruction of millions of Jews]. But at least with Schindler's List I did not walk away feeling humiliated and stupid about my own lack of awareness in my youth about what we had done and were continuing to do to people of African descent in this country. How could I have gone through high school with only a superficial understanding about the real meaning of slavery and of the public, North and South, that countenanced it? How could I have attended four years at a major state university and not had a deep appreciation for the work being done in civil rights in that era? How was it that the abolitionists were not in my mental catalogue of the greatest American heroes?
    12 Years A Slave is an appropriate prologue for a real gut-level understanding of what a cancerous institution slavery was in this country. The Butler [reviewed by Mr. Silveira on September 22] is an appropriate epilogue. We ended slavery with the Civil War and the 13th amendment. But we did not end our mistreatment of African Americans. The fascist society that had grown up in the South before the civil war continued to function after it. And only the civil rights movement of the 1960's finally dealt it a death blow. Joan Baez appropriately sang about "The Night They Tore Old Dixie Down." And even as I sound this congratulatory note I realize that not all of the old social attitudes are gone and that many in this country still fail to have any in-depth and visceral understanding of the cruelty and mistreatment suffered by African Americans in the United States since their first importation into Jamestown Colony. I hope many, many people see this film.
    An Apology to Elephants can do the same thing for our awareness of what we have done and are continuing to do to elephants. Unfortunately, the exposé of training methods employed in circuses was, for me, literally "gut-wrenching"—I don't think I have ever seen a film that so stopped my breathing and "convicted" me of my own complaisance toward a rectifiable evil. But, as your own apology to elephants, watch the documentary anyway. Just don't let young children watch it with you.
    I borrowed the DVD my wife and I watched from our local public library. I hope many, many people see this film, by whatever means.
Copyright © 2014 by Morris Dean

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  1. Blurb: What do Schlindler's List, 12 Years a Slave, & An Apology to Elephants have in common? It isn't the identity of the victims. It's the gut-wrench we can feel for the portrayal of the suffering of all three.

  2. Morris, you've hit a very sensitive nerve with this review. I often puzzle over the conundrum of mankind's treatment of our fellow animals. The mistreatment runs from this instance you've cited of Edison's electrocution of an elephant to the mistreatment of beasts of burden throughout the ages and the current incorporation of cattle, chickens, pigs, sheep, ducks, and other animals into modern industrial food production. In a word, these animals are treated no differently than the machinery that processes them. I read today that the State of Missouri has sued California for its ban on poultry that is raised in tiny cages. (Two years ago California adopted, by initiative, a law that chickens must be housed in cages that at least allow them to spread their wings and move around a bit.) I can only conclude that the public in Missouri have no concern for the manner in which poultry are mistreated as long as they have a steady and cheap supply for chicken wings at football games and chicken and gravy for Sunday dinner. And let's not forget our friendly uncle, Colonel Sanders. You and I have discussed the ethics of all of this before and I'm afraid I've gone no further in my thoughts except to refuse to eat meat or eggs that are not produced organically and the animals reated humanely.The fully principled thing to do would be to become a full vegan. 

    The real revulsion that I feel is from scenes of people hunting big game with modern high-powered rifles. These people do the shooting for nothing but the thrill of killing a wild thing. And what "sport" can be said to accrue from this when you consider the deadly and lethal accuracy of modern firearms is completely beyond my comprehension. This problem was even worse among the upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries, when all "gentlemen" enjoyed shooting and hunting. The French nobility even ordered their servants to go out into the forest and make loud noises to drive the animals to the place of slaughter. The guillotine is what that crowd got and deserved. But the same attitude continues to prevail even today. I read in today's Wall Street Journal that the Spaniards are ready to get rid of the monarchy because King Carlos went elephant hunting in Africa. They weren't objecting to the wanton killing of endangered animals. No, they were angry that he was living ostentatiously when many in Spain are without jobs and without money. But to people who view bull fighting as wonderful sport, there is probably no harm in shooting an elephant if it isn't done as part of a vulgar display of wealth!

  3. Great Sunday review. I had no idea about Edison's inhumane use of elephants. Your descriptions of the documentary make me want to view it right away (and also 12 Years a Slave).

  4. William, your comments here are right on the mark. Thank you for adding to the perspective. I plan, based on Morris' fine review, to watch the film and end any of my remaining complicity through ignorance. Thank you, both of you.