November 2009

Barbara J. King


Questioning Elephants on the Edge

Elephant survivors of trauma, including elephants in Africa or Asia who have witnessed the violent death of their family members at the hands of humans, or who bear years of confinement and pain in captivity, suffer acutely. They suffer both in the moment and, later on, as victims of post-traumatic shock.

Elephant survivors are like human Holocaust survivors in their psychology, and thus the works of Elie Wiesel and others who lay bare the shredded psyches and souls of concentration camp survivors may directly aid us in understanding and caring for traumatized elephants.

Gay Bradshaw’s Elephants on the Edge rests on this pair of premises. The gulf between them is so vast, so yawning, that I cannot negotiate it. The need to recognize the depth of elephant emotional pain resonates with me deeply. How could it not, in reading about baby elephants like Ndume? In Kenya, when Ndume and his family wandered from the forest into cropland, outraged farmers attacked them with spears and arrows. Some of the elephants were killed. Ndume witnessed a smaller calf being hacked to pieces. He himself was gashed with a knife, and went into shock.

Brought to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust near Nairobi, at three months of age, Ndume was a wounded creature. At first he cried for his mother. His sleep was disrupted, and he woke up screaming. Trust staff believed that in his dreams, Ndume relived the attack. After this initial period, Ndume slumped into depression.

Slowly, though, as he was bottle-fed and encouraged to enjoy the company of other elephants, Ndume began to recover physically and emotionally. As Bradshaw puts it, “Interacting with other elephants worked like an elixir.” She explains: “The free-ranging elephant self is defined through relationships; infant elephant cognition, emotion, behavior, and values are created in plurality.”

To read accounts like the one about Ndume is a wrenching experience. To learn that some traumatized wild elephants are now killing other elephants, and in some cases killing rhinoceroses, is shocking; such violence is incompatible with everything we have come to understand about wild elephant culture.

Yet it’s equally lacerating to read again and again Bradshaw’s weaving together in the same paragraph thoughts about pain felt by elephants who live through trauma with thoughts about the pain felt by survivors of the Holocaust (or apartheid or slavery or the genocide committed against American Indians). Bradshaw’s own words are needed here, though the cumulative power of those words comes only by reading the entire book.

* “While life in the circus or zoo has taught wariness -- to view change with suspicion -- what elephants may feel when coming to the [Elephant Sanctuary in Tennesse] is closer to weariness. Elie Wiesel describes the evolution of such weariness and the focused numbness that creeps up as time goes by under the grinding violence of captivity and the past life beings to recede into an unfamiliar reality.”

And then Bradsaw quotes from Elie Wiesel, from his book Night: “In one terrifying moment of lucidity, I thought of us as damned souls wandering through the void, souls condemned to wander through space until the end of time, seeking redemption, seeking oblivion, without any hope of finding either.”

* “The Nazis’ grotesque distortion of law and convention denied legal protection from abuse and murder to a vulnerable population. Here we have the opportunity to set a precedent of extending comparable protection to another vulnerable population [elephants] that suffers from institutional behaviors and rationalization parallel to the Nazis.”

* “The elephants and the human keeper are manipulated to keep, as [Robert Jay] Lifton describes the [concentration] camps, the atrocity-producing situation running.”

In the wake of these passages, I have no stomach to attempt a bit of wit here, or a snide cleverness there. Instead I want to ask questions.

Why, as in the repeated use of the phrase “circuses and zoos,” does Bradshaw yoke all captive institutions together? One of Bradshaw’s “ten things you can do to help elephants” is to avoid all “zoos, safari rides, roadside shows, private collections and events and businesses that use animals for media, entertainment, and profit.” Why should we refuse our children entry to a high-quality zoological park as readily as we would to a shoddy roadside Zoo or elephant-exploiting circus?

For that matter, if book-publishing is understood to be related to media, entertainment, and profit, should I not have bought Bradshaw’s book? 

Why, in moving away from a strict human-animal dichotomy, must Bradshaw insist on the “comparability” of humans and elephants? Elephants are elephants; as elephants, they think, they feel, and they suffer. In fact, Bradshaw does consider the question of elephant -- human differences. What then does it achieve to suggest that elephants could ever grasp what Elie Wiesel and other survivors of genocide grasped in confronting the reality that they -- not just their selves and their families but their whole culture -- were threatened with planned extermination?   

Elephants on the Edge, as I have noted, contains useful material. Already I have used (and cited) it in preparing an academic paper about selfhood in animals. Bradshaw is right that elephants do not belong in zoos (or, I would say, most zoos). She’s right that elephant culling in the wild is a brutal practice neither moral nor supported by science. She’s right that we humans are responsible for elephants and the time has come to act on our growing knowledge of their thinking, feeling, and suffering.

But she’s wrong in her relentless conflations: zoos are not circuses, elephants are not like Holocaust victims, zoo keepers are not like Nazi guards. And in regards to this last idea, she’s wrong to explain away any disagreements with her ways of thinking about elephants. Oh, you don’t believe elephants and humans are comparable, or that elephant suffering is well-compared to the suffering of human genocide victims? Perhaps you are engaged in unconscious doubling, just as zoo workers are. Doubling means that a person exists both as a humane self and also as a self complicit with evil -- it’s an unconscious creation of two different wholes that allows avoidance of guilt.

How outrageous this is. That elephants do not belong in zoos does not allow us to conclude that elephant keepers lack the capacity to understand fully the animals’ plight. I conveyed some of Bradshaw’s comments to a friend of mine who has carried out zoo research for many years (as I have). Her response nails the irony in Bradshaw’s turning zoo workers into one-dimensional doubling victims: “Zoo bashers don’t see the myriad wonderful human keepers as the people they are, but rather through some kind of distorting lens, as if the keepers never have had the intelligence to themselves philosophize and self-reflect about their profession, as they certainly do.”

How about scientists who may not be fully on board with Bradshaw’s approach? Here the reason may relate not to unconscious doubling but to a willful succumbing to greed. Bradshaw writes, “When an individual scientist becomes defined by her collective role, scientific opinion is silenced by a fear of social rejection and loss of fiscal and intellectual privileges… In the end, ethical autonomy is weighed against the cost of losing group membership and financial gain.” This last sentence takes aim at scientists and fires pure insult.

Elephants as elephants deserve a revolution in how we humans protect and care for them. To accept that premise, and to act on it, you needn’t accept the insensible conflations and groundless cheap shots threaded through this book.


Barbara J. King,, teaches and writes at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.