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Love, War, and Circuses: The Age-Old Relationship Between Elephants and Humans

A Conversation with Eric Scigliano

Q) You've been based in the Pacific Northwest for two decades, working as a political and environmental reporter, sometimes as an art and movie critic. What made you want to write a book about elephants?

A) First, the book is not really "about elephants" in the usual sense. It's about us, Homo sapiens, how we're affected by these animals, how their presence has shaped our history, culture, religion, maybe even our species. And, of course, how we've affected them, from our prehistoric "blitzkrieg" hunting and ancient wars to ivory poaching and circuses, and now breeding elephants for a life of captivity in zoos.

Q) Okay, but what inspired you to do it?

A) The immediate trigger was a couple of newspaper stories I wrote in the early and mid-1990s on some of the problems involved in keeping elephants in zoos. It turned out the Northwest was really a hotbed of developments in that field. The Seattle, Portland, and Tacoma zoos have all had very interesting experiences with those issues; they're paradigms, in very different ways.

I've been fascinated with elephants just about as long as I can remember. We lived in Saigon when I was a little kid, between the French and American wars, and there was a young elephant in the zoo I thought was my best friend, because whenever I approached she would stick out her trunk to get a peanut. I never checked to see if she did that for all the kids. I was vastly impressed at the thought that there were elephants out in the jungles we passed. I was also amazed, and a bit horrified, to see elephants doing tricks in the circus — how could those little people with their sticks make these giants roll over and stand on silly little tubs?

Later I got a little carved elephant from India, which I always kept on my desk; I used to imagine it helped me with my homework, and I'd rub its back when I was fishing for an answer. I didn't know then that Hindus, and quite a few Buddhists, worship the elephant-headed god Ganesha as, among many other things, the patron god of writers and scholars. That little elephant is still standing by my computer, the only object from childhood I still keep near.

Q) It sounds as if you had some amazing experiences and an extraordinary attraction to elephants.

A) No, not at all. My experiences were as ordinary as can be, and that attraction is enormously widespread. Again and again I'd tell people I was doing this book and they'd tell me about their own elephant passions, elephant fixations, elephant dreams. I didn't collect elephant figurines myself, but I've met people everywhere — in India, Thailand, South America, Europe, the U.S — who have dozens, hundreds, even thousands of them. The idea that elephants bring good luck goes deep and travels far, even though the elephants themselves haven't been so lucky lately.

Q) What do you mean?

A) I mean that people with a great awe of or affection for elephants often try to possess them, and one way they do that is through ivory. Having a figurine or piece of jewelry or signature seal carved out of ivory — it's owning a piece of the elephant. Elephants are cruelly and illegally killed so their teeth can be carved into little statues of elephants. When you see a tusk tip polished till it gleams and hung as a pendant, for sale in Japan, you realize how fetishistic the attraction is. And there's the even bigger fetish of baby elephants.

Q) Say what?

A) Look, baby elephants are the cutest creatures on the planet, and they're the biggest draw a zoo can have, short of giant pandas. Zoos go to enormous lengths to get little baby Babars — shipping the mothers across the country to get impregnated, slaving for years to make artificial insemination work. It takes a toll on the elephants themselves, but as one keeper once told me, "It's all show business."

Q) That's the sort of thing you imagine going on more in circuses than in zoos.

A) They can both have problems. The circus puts heavy demands on its elephants, who spend most of the year getting hauled around the country. And there's no shortage of horror stories about troublesome show elephants — usually males undergoing a periodic testosterone overload called musth — getting tortured, shot, poisoned, hung, even electrocuted. But the biggest breeder of elephants now isn't a zoo, it's the Ringling Brothers Circus, which wants to make sure it will have a supply. As one official said, "A circus isn't a circus without elephants."

Q) That's a connection that goes way back.

A) Clear back to ancient Rome, where the gladiators killed elephants, lions, rhinos by the hundreds in the original Circus. And of course the modern American circus started as a guy and his elephant touring the back roads of New England, renting barns and charging the farmers a quarter a head to "see the elephant," at the start of the nineteenth century. In the 1880s P. T. Barnum turned an elephant named Jumbo into the first transatlantic superstar. Jumbo made a million bucks for Barnum in a year — real money in those days. With the techniques of hype, press manipulation, and fad creation that Barnum perfected with Jumbo, you could even say that modern American popular culture was built on the back of an elephant. From Carl Fisher founding Miami Beach to the Republican Party and even Enron, the biggest promoters use elephants to get attention or even give them as gifts, just like the ancient kings of India. The ultimate regal gesture.

The great historical events and developments that have turned on elephants is truly astonishing. If Alexander the Great's Macedonian troops hadn't had the fight scared out of them by India's war elephants, Alexander wouldn't have had to turn back, and people might be speaking Greek in Southeast Asia today. Julius Caesar defeated Pompey in an elephant battle, and the eventual result was the establishment of the Roman Empire.

The pursuit of elephants has transformed Africa, though not for the better. The ivory trade led to the slave trade and was the initial impetus for colonialism. Synthetic materials began when the first plastics were invented to replace ivory in pool balls. Africa's elephants were getting wiped out to supply the nineteenth-century billiards craze, prices soared, and the leading manufacturer offered a whopping reward for a substitute material.

Q) In all this ranging around the world and across history, what did you learn that most surprised you?

A) I suppose it would be one peripheral fact, a rather lurid phenomenon that says something about just what intelligent, sensitive, emotionally complex critters elephants are. They are vegetarians — except sometimes when they're confined or abused by humans. And then their motive seems to be retribution, not sustenance. One captive elephant in Thailand would sneak out, dig up freshly buried corpses — their sense of smell is quite acute — and eat them.

In Sri Lanka, I tagged along with a team of wildlife rangers trying to capture and relocate a gang of male elephants — an epic undertaking, it turned out. These so-called rogues had returned to their old habitat, now converted to tea plantations, and were raiding crops and, occasionally, killing villagers. The veterinarian in charge of the team told me about another elephant they'd caught earlier, a notorious rogue who'd killed sixteen people. The locals called him Molekanna — "Brain Eater" — and claimed he bit the heads off his victims. The rangers didn't believe it, until they found a seventeenth victim headless, and elephant droppings containing bits of bone and hair.

They captured Brain Eater and found him riddled with gunshot wounds and abscesses, as crop raiders often are — the farmers try to repel elephants with everything from shotguns to battery acid to bombs inside pumpkins. He was in constant pain, rage, and confusion; the veterinarian conjectured that he'd accidentally bitten off the head of one attacker and just continued that behavior. The rangers treated his wounds, then released him in a national park at the other end of the country. He went into the forest, joined up with a herd, sired offspring, and never tangled with people again.

Q) So it's a tale of redemption.

A) Yes, there are second acts, at least in some elephant lives. For the elephant species it's a tough struggle, in a planet packed with 6 billion people. We have to show some real forbearance to make room for animals as big and demanding as elephants. But it wouldn't be the same world without them. I hope this book helps people to understand that, and to see how important they've been to human life.

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