I have a special affinity for elephants. I don’t know why or even when my fascination with them began, though there’s speculation that it dates back to my Dumbo watching days. He was just so dang cute!
During an interview I was asked, “if you could be any animal, what would it be and why?” The question itself didn’t catch me off guard, but the truth was that I had never really thought about it before that instant. Elephant came out of my mouth before I had a chance to get my mind and my mouth on the same page. The woman smiled and said that she had never received that answer before, so she was curious to see what my reasoning was. That made two of us.
Without skipping a beat, I told her about how elephants are good-natured animals, empathetic, and more intelligent than most people give them credit for. I talked about how an elephant is not the first animal that comes to mind when one hears king of the jungle, but that they really are a giant force with a gentle touch. Lastly, I emphasized how elephants lead while understanding when to be led, a trait I aspire to emulate. All of these points are reasons why I would choose to be an elephant over any other animal and are traits I would bring to the job.
I’ve got to hand it to myself, for on-the-spot reasoning, that wasn’t half bad. The interviewer even appreciated how much thought I put into my answer. Maybe I am becoming wise like the elephant.
In drafting my original post about the Beijing Zoo, I found myself writing about the elephants in greater length and with stronger emotion than other thoughts on the experience. Certainly, all animals deserve better. The sad conditions of the majority of the animals at the Beijing Zoo was disturbing, but the elephants really took me over the edge and prompted me to do more research to share with you. So, here is a quick lesson on one of the amazing creatures we are so fortunate to share this earth with.
In my opinion, the most important thing people should understand is that elephants understand.
Have you ever heard someone say that the elephants at the zoo are dancing? Perhaps you've even thought this yourself. It's a nice thought. Who doesn't like the idea of cute animals movin' and groovin' to the beat? However, what if the animals are not happy, not dancing at all?
Elephants bear the burden of sentience, meaning that they are acutely aware of their surroundings, feeling and experiencing life subjectively. Research suggests elephants build strong familial bonds and even bonds with other species similar to the way we do with family and friends. Like us, they are social and care for others.
Because of this, the behavior zoo goers see when visiting elephant enclosures is frequently abnormal. Repetitive behaviors such as swaying and other similar signals of duress are huge red flags, especially considering that nearly 40% of zoo elephants display some sort of abnormal repetitive behavior. Micheal J. Berens, a Seattle Times staff reporter that has done several pieces about elephants, wrote, “Dr. Joyce Poole, a recognized global elephant expert, reports that stereotypical behavior – the kind exhibited by many zoo elephants – is not found among elephants in the wild.” Not surprisingly, elephants in captivity are also known to suffer from depression and PTSD. Elephants are quite literally driven mad as they develop neurotic disorders from captivity.
What does this mean?
Elephants are not dancing. They sway as a coping mechanism to a reaction partly induced by lack of space. In fact, most zoo enclosures fail to provide adequate space for the animals. Tight living quarters result in not only a lack of exercise and social interaction with other elephants, but often in death. Arthritis and foot infections are common developments among elephants. The ailments are a direct result of being forced to stand on hard surfaces, such as the concrete shown in pictures from my zoo post and these YouTube videos. Unfortunately, the infections can be lethal, leading the animals to be euthanized decades sooner than their expected lifespan, PETA shows.
The eyes of the elephants at the Beijing Zoo were bloodshot from a list of triggers magnified by their sentient ability. Their cramped enclosures are not even a fraction of the size necessary for normal roaming, which is important to consider given that elephants are known to travel anywhere from 30 to 50 miles daily in the wild. PETA even reports that in their natural habitat, these animals remain active for approximately 18 hours each day. Space is of the utmost importance.
These majestic animals face enough hardships through competing for resources with humans and the threat poachers inflict. Now the very people and organizations responsible for their care are threatening their lives. It’s truly a tragedy.
This quick Ted Talk video provides some interesting insight. Most importantly, it touches on the fact that these poor animals understand their inhumane treatment and living conditions, and they remember the people who subject them to it.
As I mentioned in my very first post, a particular incident a year prior was the spark that lit the writing fire. My writing endeavors have always been something I put on the back burner, something I wasn’t interested in sharing with many people, if any at all.
A day in mid-October 2014 changed that.
Despite my best efforts, it has been the ultimate challenge to express this particular experience in an eloquent fashion because it infuriates me to the point of no words even today. On more than one occasion, I have just stared at my laptop screen for hours flipping through pictures and remembering the day that my friends and I ventured to the Beijing Zoo. The only thing I consistently produce when thinking about how to narrate our trip is blurred vision from tears.
More than two years ago, I found myself in Beijing, China with a group of friends I also called my teammates. Texas State University had just won the 2014 Enactus National Championship and as such, represented the United States at the Enactus World Cup. We spent nearly a week in Beijing, spending our limited time competing and seeing as much of the city as would fit into the short trip. Towards the end of our stay, a few of us decided to explore one more time and chose the Beijing Zoo as our last tourist stop. It would also be the last time I would voluntarily visit a zoo.
I can say with without a fraction of hesitation that the Beijing Zoo is the most depressing place I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing.
I am an emotional person – I’m not naïve to this. At either end of the emotional spectrum, tears will fall. If I’m beyond myself excited, I’m crying. If I’m watching a sad movie, there’s a high probability that I will be crying before the credits start rolling. Kristin Bell understands this (for a good lauch, check out her interview on Ellen here). Even being an expert on the rollercoaster that is my emotions, there is nothing I could have done to prepare myself for the sorrow that would ensue.
The vast majority of the animals in the Beijing Zoo were neglected in one way or another. As an animal lover, my heart broke for every one of them. I found myself walking around with my phone in constant camera mode, snapping picture after picture out of disbelief, as if I needed proof that what I was seeing was real. Between the insufficient bird enclosures, the sodden bears begging for food, the emaciated big cats, and the depressing elephant enclosures, there was a lot to take in. Here's a few images with notes. I also posted videos on YouTube.
Pictures from the last few habitats are currently missing, so I'll try to paint a picture. The hippos lived in deplorable conditions that rivaled that of the elephants. A mother and baby hippo were submerged in a tank no bigger than the average aboveground pool that was the consistency and color of mud – the animals were forced to soak in their own waste without access to fresh water or land. The hippo calf wasn’t tall enough to keep its head above water, so it would surface for a few minutes doing what I can only assume to be was treading water, before resting underwater again. Who knows how long they had been kept stationary in the tank – it didn’t appear large enough for the mother hippo to even be able to turn around.
Perhaps the most senseless part of the whole experience was the stark contrast between the zoo’s plants and gardens and the animals. The ONLY sign of life, prosperity, or contentment in that place radiated not from the pandas or tigers, but from the plants. The gardens were immaculate. The animal enclosures were dilapidated and starved.
Sadly, this type of neglect and abuse is far from being an isolated incident. I came across a story posted on the South China Morning Post website after disturbing images of a lion and Bengal tiger went viral following a concerned zoo visitor's post about them online. The zoo’s pathetic attempt of a response? The lion suffered from a genetic disorder causing him to be bony. More details are listed on DoDo and several additional images can be seen on the Shanghaiist.
I am confident in the idea that the atrocities left in plain sight for tourists to view are just a small sample of the inhumane reality animals of the Beijing Zoo live with every day. It’s clear that the Beijing Zoo does not exist for the purpose of education or animal conservation. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. The biggest problem these animals face does not stem from genetic disorders, depleting resources, or poaching.
THE BEIJING ZOO IS THE PROBLEM.
AND IT'S A BIG ONE.
For more on elephants, check out my post Elephants and Why They Never Forget.