Thinking About Elephants

Bruce Wagman

I have been thinking about elephants.  The recent disappointing judgment in the hard-fought Ringling Brothers case is really only one reason.  I’ve been involved in a few nonlitigation matters trying to help make life better for elephants in zoos in different states, have visited the elephants at PAWS in California, and have spent many hours watching the amazing interactions and overwhelming magic of hundreds of elephants in several Tanzanian parks.  There are many elephant experiences that stand out in my mind, including on the one hand one long heating-up morning when we spent about two hours watching about 220 elephants of all ages and sizes (as best as we could count) in one spot in Tarangire National Park, and on the other being shocked into outrage when I learned about the crushing pain they suffer by virtue of almost every confinement situation in America, the literal disintegration of their foot bones as they are forced to stand on them, in some of the worst pain one could imagine, without any relief.  When it comes to elephants in zoos and circuses, the news is grim. 

I had to learn the science of elephants for my job, and that requirement is one of the fantastic things about practicing animal law, especially for someone like me.  That is, in order to do a good job, I am compelled to learn not just the law, but often the biology, physiology, psychology and behaviors of whatever species is at the center of the case I am litigating.  For me that is turning work into fun or at least intellectual exploration, which is fun for a law geek like me.  Because there are “cat people” and “dog people” and “chimp people;” and when on safari in Africa some people mainly want to see the big cats; others the birds.  There is an inherent speciesism, just like when we pet a cat and eat a cow, or think it is bad to eat dog because we do not do it, but it is okay to eat a pig because we do.  But I’m a garbage-can animal lover, meaning I love them all.  So when I am in Africa, ask me what I want to see, and I don’t care, as long as it’s wild.  People say warthogs are ugly and I think they are beautiful, perfect.  And when I am home ask if I prefer my dogs or cats, and my response is: “anything nonhuman will do, I love them all.”  So the requirement that I learn about some species or other is just a joy, and something I have done literally dozens of times over the course of my career.  And you really cannot adequately litigate for animals if you don’t understand them – as well as the law. 

The examples are endless.  Very early on I learned about the tule elk that can be seen in the Point Reyes National Seashore of Northern California, their lifestyle, population patterns, and susceptibility to brucellosis, in a case directed at protecting their habitat.  Then I had to study up on dolphins for a challenge to Swim-with-the-Dolphins programs.  I learned that dolphins are probably the most intelligent living beings on earth based on brain size, and I learned of their innate need for play and stimulation, and of the abject torture that their capture and confinement inflicts, and how psychologically ill they get when they are forced to swim with us.  It’s not fun for them.  Some of their fellow marine mammals seem to be making that clear lately too.

Some of the most fascinating education has come in the hours reading about and talking to some of the world’s experts on pain in animals – how animals feel it, what it means to them, how it compares to the way they feel pain.  It is not that I like pain, it’s just that it is crucial to our work.  This understanding has been provided patiently and in large part by Dr. Bernie Hansen of North Carolina State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, who has devoted his life to studying postoperative pain in dogs and cats.  His work extends to all mammalian pain, and his testimony – about the suffering of dogs in a hoarding situation in the Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Woodley – was one of those unforgettable trial moments in which you could see the judge listening intently and understanding the issues of suffering.  I regularly reference my text on animal pain because it is often so important to break through that barrier of disbelief humans have with respect to animal pain.  Given what we do to them under the protection of law – confine, slaughter, mutilate, manipulate, beat and abuse – it is hard for judges and juries to accept that the animals could possibly feel pain in the same way as they do.  It is essential that we get across to triers of fact, and members of the public, that they feel like we do, especially in the experience of pain.  If we get them to believe that, maybe they will question the level of permissible conduct to which they are subjected.

Just yesterday I obtained copies of The Elephant’s Foot and Jumbo Ghosts (about the dangers of living in zoos if you are an elephant) and have come to realize that there is nothing anthropomorphic about our concern for them.  It may be inadvertently scientific, but the hard-to-dispute science is that elephants need to keep actively mobile every day in order to exercise their feet and bodies.  They need to dig in the dirt, and if they are denied of that, they can develop severe and painful conditions which are incurable and get progressively worse.  And they need to be engaged in regular social interactions with their family and friends, or they experience severe psychological distress.  Like us.  I think every day about those elephants in Tarangire and Serengeti, and then I think about the elephants standing on concrete in cold barns around America.

I guess I think about elephants all the time.

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6 Responses

  1. [...] Thinking About Elephants « Animal Blawg By Paris Yves of Parrot Productions Thinking About Elephants « Animal Blawg. [...]

  2. i want any animal in troble to not be hurt but be treted how God made them.

  3. These picture of the elephants are horrible. Why would the chain them???????????????

  4. Bruce
    Bravo for getting to understand the elephants and any other animal “clients”.

    Your empathy and connection with the animals’ emotions, whether it is joy or pain, will surely help to make things better for our animal friends.

  5. heeey, can i use your picture of the elephant on this page?xxxxx<3<3xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  6. The beauity of that animal wow then why would you chain them like that yet they make our environment so great, feel sorry for them too

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