Lately I have been thinking a lot about elephants.
A few months ago I read the book Topsy, written by Michael Daly, about the elephant that was wrongly put to death by electrocution at Coney Island, NY on January 4 1903, under the supervision of Thomas Edison. The event was filmed by Edison’s film crew and if you are not faint hearted, you can watch the grainy short film on YouTube or on many other internet sites. It’s not pretty. Topsy burns and smokes from the feet up, and then topples over. Dead.
The book tells the story of an innocent Topsy, who was a victim caught between two unfolding events – the competition between the two top circuses of the time, the Forepaugh Circus and P.T. Barnum shows, and the bitter and complex battle over the merits and usefulness of AC vs. DC currents waged between Edison and Westinghouse. Throughout the book, Daly describes the history of the mistreatment and cruelty that elephants were subjected to throughout the era, and which still continues today. Topsy was only one of many elephants that suffered a lifetime of abuse. Her life as a circus attraction began after she was stolen from her mother before she was weaned, and shipped off to America where she was beaten by trainers, bull hooked, and kept in chains. She was never allowed to be the elephant that her instincts told her to be. That too, was beaten out of her. During one beating, her tail was broken, and since then, it hung crooked.
She killed her first human, a drunk who sneaked into the menagerie tent where she was chained, and continuously teased her and then burned her sensitive trunk with a cigar. Defending herself, she picked him up with her scorched trunk and threw him to the ground, breaking pretty much every bone in his body.
Later she was sold to operators of an amusement park in Coney Island and after continually being mistreated by her handler – who was arrested for his abusive actions – she acted out her built up anxieties through actions that did not hurt anyone, but caused the area’s inhabitants to fear her. It was decided that she be put down. Until the fledgling SPCA stepped in, Topsy’s owners were organizing plans to make her execution a ticket selling, money making show. Although the SPCA said no to the “show”, they did not say no to the execution. Edison decided that this was another chance to prove that DC current could be lethally dangerous and he arranged her death by electrocution to prove his point even once more. This was after he had invented the electric chair to prove his point years before, and which was developed and improved by experimenting with electrocuting dogs and horses. He filmed the Topsy event just to be sure the world would again see that Westinghouse was wrong about the safety of DC current.
Topsy, for her entire life, was a victim.
But she was not the only one. Most elephants were treated the same as Topsy, and as they grew older and anxious of the beatings and the strains of captivity, became harder to handle and tended to defend themselves by sometimes hurting or killing their abusive handlers. Many were sold off, and inevitably, put to death.
Another book I recently read, Behemoth- The History of the Elephant in America by Ronald Tobia, as its title suggests, tells the history of elephants in this country, beginning with the first known elephant which arrived in America in 1796. The second, Old Bet, came in 1804, and was killed in Maine by a man named Daniel Davis who was “morally outraged” that her owner, in showing her, “took money from those who could not afford it.” In 1822, another elephant, Little Bet, was shot and killed by six boys in Rhode Island, wanting to disprove the elephant’s owner’s claim that a bullet would not penetrate the pachyderm’s skin. One bullet found her eye socket and a straight path to her brain. I myself would have to guess that her death didn’t prove a thing, as the bullet that killed her did not go through her hide.
One story from the book bothers me the most. It is of Mary, who was hanged in 1916. She killed an inexperienced handler, who she wasn’t familiar with, and who poked her behind the ear with a bull hook during a circus parade in Kingsport, Tennessee. She turned on him, killing him. She was charged with murder and was hung by a railroad crane – twice, because the chain around her neck broke during the first attempt, sending her crashing to the ground and breaking her pelvis…so they re-chained her and were successful the second try. She had been a part of the circus for years and years without incident, but for this one moment which was simply an attempt to defend herself from harm.
The stories of mistreatment go on and on. Not too many end happily.
Normally, when we think of animal mistreatment, we conditionally think of dogs and cats. The reality is that they are far from being the only ones. We as humans do not have a history of treating animals well, or in most cases, as living beings. Besides neglect and violence, take a moment to think about the chickens jammed in battery cages, cows in feedlots, baby bulls in veal sheds, horses slaughtered, goats maimed for military medic training, rabbits blinded for product testing, whales speared for their fat…also think of the amount of habitat we have taken or altered, forcing species to extinction. That too is abuse. As humans, we show little value for the lives of the weakest and smallest animals, but as these books point out, we also have a poor record as to how we treat the biggest land mammal, as well as all of those that fit in between.
I never had given much thought to animal cruelty as I was never exposed to it. Our family always had cats and dogs that, at least I think, were treated well. Our dogs slept on the couch, our cats were free to come and go, and all were fed and loved and never missed an appointment with a vet. My first cat, Hooter, was hit by a car and by the time the surgery bills were over, Kath and I were broke and wondering how the mortgage would be paid…for a few bucks we could have just said goodbye to him then, but it turned out we had another great ten years with the guy who finally and sadly died of cancer. To me, and Kath, that’s just what you did. We never thought to think another way. I think that most everyone is the same way, or at least that is the kind of dedication I have witnessed from the people I know.
What turned the light on for me to begin to understand how bigger animals were treated began when we first got into horses. I was naive and only thought that like most dogs, a horse was purchased and cared for by its owner until death parted them …But I found that was not really the norm, as horses are bought and sold like stocks, and when they don’t perform to an owners expectations, most are sold off. Many have multiple owners who treat and train them with different methods ranging from trust to force. Some owners take better care of them than others do. When a horse can no longer be used or sold for some type of use, whether it be for riding, racing, or showing, or because it has been mistreated to the point it cannot be handled safely, the chances that it will be sold to an auction house to be bid on for slaughter is common. My horse Lou was headed down that path years ago.
Like animal shelters that are operated for the care of unwanted cats and dogs, there are horse rescues and organizations that work to care for retired horses and/or to retrain and adopt out horses for new careers or as companion animals. Many of these organizations retrain racehorses whose racing careers are over and find them new homes. Not all horses are lucky enough to be rescued by any one of these organizations, and are last seen on the auction floor. There are many race horses that have made their owners hundreds of thousands of dollars and end up on dinner plates in European countries. To some, it’s considered part of the business.
Some aspects of the horse business is not much different than the elephant business, and I think that is why it has moved me to learn more about both situations and to try to help by supporting rescues when I can. Luckily, there are two well known and very respected organizations in the United States that rescue elephants – PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Sanctuary) in California, http://www.pawsweb.org/ ,and the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald Tennessee, http://www.elephants.com/aboutSanctuary.php
On both sites, particularly on the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald Tennessee, there are the stories of each of the elephants that are there. Some of these stories are very disturbing, especially if you take the time to do a little further research on your own with an internet search of any of these neglected souls.
As for horses, there are so many rescues out there that they are easily found. One in particular that Kath and I have been supporting is the Standardbred Retirement Foundation , http://www.adoptahorse.org/ which is dedicated to retraining and finding homes for standardbred horses who no longer harness race due to age, injury, or lack of winnings. They have saved many of theses animals from slaughter. We were drawn to this organization because of Lou’s past as a harness race horse (aka Earls Lucky Buck) who didn’t fare too well on the track. We don’t even think he got there.
(Just so you know that we care about other animals as well, our three cats are rescues from the Ocean City Animal Shelter, and we have a domesticated duck that a friend of Kath’s found and brought to us. In the past, we also had a rescued chicken! Our little goat gal Ellen was slated to be someone’s Easter Dinner last year, but we bought her a week or so before she was be sent to an auction in Lancaster.)
But the elephant thing is really something that I had never known anything about, and I ask everyone, not necessarily to be an activist, but to take a few minutes to learn about their plight. It is really sad, and because they aren’t as mainstream as dogs, cats, or horses, little attention is given to them. I think if their stories were more publicized, the ways in which they are treated could change for the better.