Documentary about man's inhumanity to elephants is a real eye-opener

Elephants in captivity need room to roam. The animals are prone to hoof disease, and freedom of movement helps prevent it.
Elephants in captivity need room to roam. The animals are prone to hoof disease, and freedom of movement helps prevent it. Courtesy of HBO

An Apology to Elephants might seem like an awkward and even pretentious title for a film. By the time the HBO documentary ends, though, viewers might be more than ready to apologize for what humans have done and are doing to elephants.

Narrated by Lily Tomlin and written by her partner, Jane Wagner, Apology is a 40-minute public service announcement, but it's one that's impossible to ignore because of the irrefutable arguments made by its savvy combination of testimony from animal experts and images of elephants being abused. The film is directed by Amy Schatz and premieres Monday.

Because elephants are large and generally move in a slow gait, swinging their comical-looking trunks, they have long played a buffoonlike role in human culture. Schatz's film begins with a flash of elephant imagery, from Dumbo to the stripes-and-stars GOP icon, showing just some of the ways elephants have been depicted by humans.

But elephants, we learn, are anything but buffoons. They are highly intelligent, very social creatures who exhibit deep and very sophisticated emotions. They are very tactile with one another and display heartbreaking grief when one of their own is killed. We see mother elephants who spend days guarding the bodies of their dead offspring from jackals and other poachers. When two female elephants are reunited at a California sanctuary, they instantly recognize each other despite having been apart for 20 years.

Once we are disabused of our ignorant assumptions about what elephants really are, Apology details the long and continuing history of abuse suffered by elephants at the hands of humans. The ivory trade alone, we are told, accounts for the deaths of 38,000 elephants a year. If that rate is not checked, the entire species in the wild will be eradicated within 10 years.

The first elephant was brought to the United States in 1796. Ever since, elephants have been the stars of countless circuses and feature attractions in hundreds of American zoos.

What child hasn't been held in thrall by the antics of the huge beasts in a circus ring, standing on their hind legs, walking in circles with their trunks gripping the tails of other elephants, slowly turning around on tiny platforms while their handlers poke and tap them with steel rods known as bull hooks. Because its hide seems so impermeable and thick, we never think the elephant is feeling pain, but they are all trained by first being "broken," usually as babies. All too soon, the elephant learns to fear the bull hook because while it might look like "just" a steel rod to circus audiences, it has a point and a hook on the end and is applied regularly to especially sensitive areas of the elephant's body.

Until relatively recently, elephants were handled through what is called free contact. The trainer was in the elephant's space, controlling it with bull hooks. Gradually, humans have learned to use protected contact with elephants, as practiced by the handlers at the California sanctuary. The elephant and the human are separated, and instead of inducing fear in the elephant, the handler builds trust, in many cases replacing years of negative conditioning the elephant has experienced in circuses.

In general, we are told, zoos can be "fixed" but circuses cannot when it comes to more humane treatment of elephants. Some zoos have gotten the message and adapted their facilities to a closer approximation of how elephants are designed to live in nature.

In 1991, a trainer was killed at the Oakland Zoo by an elephant. It was a horrific event, but one from which the zoo learned over time. Today, the Oakland Zoo is seen as a model for how elephants should be treated in captivity. They are given wide range to roam, rather than being confined to small habitats or behind bars. The reason is more than just one of elephant psychology: Elephants forced to stand for hours on concrete and other hard surfaces, without being able to roam, are likely to become arthritic and are prone to develop hoof disease. This is more than just a foot irritation: 50 percent of all elephants in captivity will die of hoof-related disease.

An Apology to Elephants isn't a pitch for money as much as it's a pitch for enlightenment, an argument for us to stop looking away. As difficult as some of the imagery in the film is, it's impossible to look away and maybe just as impossible not to learn something about elephants and ourselves.


'An Apology to Elephants'

7 p.m. April 22 on HBO