Beatings, Abuse : Elephants in Captivity: a Dark Side

Times Staff Writer

Painted and bejeweled, they parade through the streets of India, prodded by their proud mahouts. In the jungles of Asia, laden with chains, they uproot trees and trudge miles in the heat. At zoos and circuses across the United States, they give rides to delighted children, kneel over their trainers and even form conga lines.

Throughout history, man has sought dominance over the elephant and, to most Americans, they seem like agreeable and docile creatures.

But dominance over the Earth’s largest land animal has a hidden side. Behind the scenes, elephant handlers sometimes employ surprisingly brutal methods. Beatings, starvation, electric shock and, if all else fails, months or years of isolation are among the tools used by some elephant handlers to control the animals.

Dwindling Numbers


Now, with herds dwindling in the wilds of Asia and Africa, the care and handling of elephants in captivity is coming under increasing scrutiny. Asian elephants are an endangered species, while African elephants are considered threatened, a less urgent but still serious classification.

Many who study and care for elephants have come to believe that the last refuge for the beasts may be Western zoos and wildlife parks, where their hope for survival rests with fledgling captive breeding programs.

Whether American elephant handlers are equipped to assume that role--and whether they can accomplish it humanely--are questions that have stirred considerable debate, particularly among elephant handlers themselves, a group known as much for its differences of opinion as for its pachyderm-size egos.

“It’s a mess,” said Roland Smith, assistant director of the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash. “The basic problem is that there is no place where anybody really goes to learn how to work elephants. We hire keepers and we give them sticks and we tell them they’re elephant guys.


Sees No Need for Cruelty

“I believe you can keep elephants in captivity without brutalizing them, but you have very few people who know what they’re doing, meaning people who use their minds. . . . People need to get together in the zoo community and drop their egos at the door. It will be years before it’s resolved.”

John Lehnhardt, elephant collection manager at the National Zoo in Washington, said he thinks zoos historically have done a “lousy job” of managing elephants. “I really felt there was no consensus of any kind on how you handle elephants at zoos,” Lehnhardt said.

The feeling is shared, he added, by many of the trainers and handlers who care for the estimated 400 elephants in North American zoos and another 200 to 300 in the hands of circuses and other private owners. In an attempt to impose some order on the world of elephant keeping, Lehnhardt and others organized their first annual elephant workshop eight years ago.

Although still loosely coordinated, the conferences for the first time have brought together circus trainers, zookeepers and private owners who exchange opinions as well as information. This year, the workshop will be held in December in Jacksonville, Fla.

Over the last eight years, the level of care at zoos has improved dramatically, Lehnhardt said, in part because of the conferences and in part because zoos have begun to bring in elephant consultants to advise them on care.

Still, the conferences have been a disappointment to some who believe elephant keepers should establish standards for training, feeding, discipline and medical care and eventually the more difficult tasks of captive breeding.

So far, the handlers have taken only the first steps toward consensus, agreeing to standardize 15 or so basic verbal commands such as “No,” “Come here,” “Down” and “Heel.” Keepers throughout North America, the conference leaders hope, will learn the commands and use them consistently to keep from confusing the elephants. High turnover among trainers as well as elephant trades among zoos, circuses and private owners make it unlikely that an elephant will be in the care of the same person for more than a few years.


The keepers themselves are a disparate lot who are not reluctant to express contempt for each other. “There’s kind of an old saying,” said keeper Jim Sanford of the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Ore. “ ‘You can’t get any two of them to agree on anything except what the third guy is doing wrong.’ ”

Source of Experience

Many elephant keepers are former carnival hands who learned their trade at roadside shows, under the big top of major circuses, or, more recently, at American theme parks. They work side by side with young graduate students and miscellaneous zoo employees whose only experience with animals may have been driving the tour bus at the zoo.

“Nobody teaches Elephant 101,” Sanford said. “If you want to do it, you just start hanging around with people who do it.”

Keepers blame the high turnover within their ranks on the danger and unpleasantness of the job--all but the most senior staffers must shovel daunting piles of elephant dung each day--as well as on pay levels that begin around $12,000 and rarely go higher that $25,000 a year.

The touchy subject of discipline has been raised at the annual workshops, but whether the keepers are likely to agree on its use and limitations is another matter entirely.

“It was sort of the dirty, dark secret everybody did after hours,” Lehnhardt said. “You went out and trained your elephants.”

All but the most fervent animal rights activists agree that elephants must undergo some physical discipline if they are to live in captivity. In the wild, elephants live in herds of adult females and their juvenile offspring. One matriarch dominates the herd, enforcing order with threats and an occasional shove.


Male elephants are more solitary creatures, living on the fringes of herds and approaching only to mate. Young bull elephants sometimes spar to define their positions in the herd, reports Dan Freeman in his book, “Elephants, the Vanishing Giants.” But true violence is rare, even among bulls, who establish dominance by their size and threat displays, according to Freeman.

Females Easier to Handle

Most zoo elephants are females, which are more malleable than males, but many zoos, especially those attempting breeding programs, keep one or more bull elephants to ensure a diverse gene pool.

In captivity, discipline is necessary for the welfare of both the elephants and their handlers, keepers say. A common cause of death among captive elephants is complications resulting from foot infections that went untreated because keepers were unable to approach the animals.

And there are numerous instances of keepers being killed or maimed by captive elephants that got out of control. According to a survey by the San Diego Zoo, two keepers at American zoos and one in England have been killed by elephants since 1981 and many handlers have been injured. In 1983, an elephant at Lion Country Safari in Laguna Hills attacked and killed the park’s chief zoologist, and last year, an elephant at the Ft. Worth (Texas) Zoo attacked and killed a keeper there.

On Saturday, Gail Hedberg, a veterinary technician at the San Francisco Zoo, was attacked while attempting to treat an abscess on an elephant’s head. Tinkerbelle, a 22-year-old female, became angry during the treatment and did a “handstand” on Hedberg, who suffered a broken pelvis, a zoo spokesman said.

One keeper expressed sympathy for Tinkerbelle, saying she has been abused by handlers who are trying to get her to perform tricks for the public. Paul Hunter, a keeper at the zoo for nine years, said Monday that the abscess was caused by a blow with a hooked instrument called an ankus.

“They are trying to turn these elephants into circus performers,” Hunter said. “You have to motivate them and the way you do that is by beating the hell out of them. Sometimes keepers lose their tempers.”

Abuse Denied

Saul Kitchener, director of the San Francisco Zoo, said Monday that Tinkerbelle has never been abused and that other keepers at the zoo are angry with Hunter. “They are very professional keepers who attend all the elephant workshops,” Kitchener said. The zoo does not permit keepers to strike elephants with the hooked end of the ankus, he added.

Most keepers agree on the use of the ankus or elephant hook, a light baton with a steel hook on one end. The hooked end is used to guide an elephant’s foot and the blunt end can be used to strike the elephant, usually on the head, where the skull is thick and the keeper can get his point across without inflicting injury. There is little agreement, however, on the use of more severe measures, such as sustained beatings with ax handles or other instruments.

“Elephants are real dangerous,” Lehnhardt said. “If you’re going to manage them well in captivity, you’ve got to give them discipline. The question is, ‘Where do you draw the line between effective discipline and abuse?’ ”

There is no easy answer to that question, a lesson learned recently in a bitter dispute that divided keepers at the world-renowned San Diego Zoo and its sister institution, the San Diego Wild Animal Park. The San Diego incident and several investigations that followed provided a rare opportunity for the public to get a behind-the-scenes look at measures sometimes taken to control elephants, measures that many public relations-conscious zoo administrators would prefer to keep private.

The incident involved an 18-year-old female African elephant called Dunda, which was transferred last February from the zoo, where she had spent most of her life, to the Wild Animal Park, where she was to become part of a breeding herd.

Prolonged Beating Told

According to keepers at the zoo, Dunda’s new keepers chained her legs, pulled her to the ground, and beat her on the head with ax handles during several sessions over two days. One of the five participants described the blows to San Diego Humane Society investigators as “home run swings.”

Officials of the Zoological Society of San Diego, which operates both institutions, have said they believe the beatings were an appropriate method of disciplining a dangerous animal, but Dunda’s former keepers at the zoo criticized the sessions as unnecessary and brutal, and a veterinarian at the park has told investigators he thinks the institution owes the public an apology.

Several investigations of the incident have produced conflicting results, reflecting the confusion that exists among people who consider themselves experts. The San Diego Humane Society and the San Diego city attorney’s office concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone on animal cruelty charges, but the Humane Society of the United States called the incident a clear case of abuse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now looking into the matter and the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums is investigating the incident to see if the group’s ethics code was violated.

It is not clear whether sessions such as the one at the Wild Animal Park are common at American zoos, but nearly all of about 20 zookeepers interviewed by The Times said they either know of or had witnessed far more serious incidents in their years of elephant keeping.

Electric Shocks

Dale Tuttle, executive director of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Zoological Park, is among a number of keepers who said they have heard of incidents during which keepers at zoos soaked recalcitrant elephants with water and then applied 110- or 220-volt electric current to them. Those who use electric shock will rarely admit it, Tuttle said, adding that he had never witnessed such an incident and that he and many other keepers object strongly to the practice.

Tuttle said electric shock infuriates elephants and that the idea of “juicing an animal that’s chained and can’t run away” is not acceptable.

Elephant handlers frequently complain, he added, that “nobody cares about what we do and nobody listens to what we say.” The situation may improve if elephant handlers organize, possibly through the annual workshops, and present a united front to zoo directors as well as the public, he said.

“Elephants have traditionally not done well at zoos until this decade,” Tuttle said. He said he believes that there are a number of young people in the field who have an intense interest in elephants and their welfare. The future care and protection of the animals rests with those concerned young people, he believes.

Most elephants are likely to fare better in American zoos today than did the infamous rogue Ziggy, an Asian male that spent nearly 30 years chained in an elephant barn at the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago.

Bought by Producer

Named for Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who purchased the elephant and brought it to the United States, Ziggy arrived at Brookfield around 1940. For more than a year after his arrival, no one was able to approach him and unchain him.

He was liberated in 1941 by the late Slim Lewis, a well-known handler who exemplified what some keepers call the old-school style of elephant handling.

Lewis joined the staff of the Brookfield Zoo in 1941 to take on the challenge of “breaking” Ziggy, an animal he described as “the meanest elephant alive in America today.”

At 10 feet tall and 13,000 pounds, Ziggy was “one of the biggest, most devilish, wild-eyed monsters I ever had laid eyes on,” Lewis wrote in his book, “I Loved Rogues--The Life of an Elephant Tramp.”

During a hair-raising session in the elephant barn, Lewis succeeded in “breaking” Ziggy, beating on him “in a fury.” After 15 minutes, Ziggy was “lying on his side on the floor,” Lewis wrote.

Lewis described the exhilaration he felt “after hearing the sigh of a mighty bull elephant that has given in and acknowledged you as both his master and his protector. It’s a thrill that comparatively few of us, at least in America, have had.”

But within months Ziggy tried to kill Lewis, who narrowly escaped. Ziggy was locked inside a barn and largely forgotten by the public for the next 30 years, until a new director was brought to the zoo and a new outdoor facility and moat were constructed. For his last four years, Ziggy was handled from a distance. He died in 1975 at the age of 58, after falling into a moat. Despite his unnatural living conditions, Ziggy had a life span typical of elephants in the wild.

Few zookeepers would attempt to handle or break a bull elephant today.

Breeding Program

“We never go in with our male elephants,” said Sanford, of the Washington Park Zoo, which has three male elephants used in a breeding program.

“When male Asian elephants go into musth (a condition associated with establishing dominance and mating), they become extremely aggressive. Their hormone levels rise tremendously and they become lethal, very unpredictable and dangerous.” Male elephants enter the musth state, characterized by dripping glands near their eyes, about once a year. But even when males are not in musth, they can be dangerously aggressive.

Yet they still require medical care, especially for their feet, and keepers must sometimes approach them. In contrast to life in the wild, captivity affords elephants little opportunity to walk and keep their massive footpads trimmed. Foot infections among captive elephants are so common and can become so debilitating that it is one of the leading causes of death.

As recently as 1986, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found elephants at the San Diego Zoo suffering from “foot scald,” an ongoing problem that existed until the zoo replaced a rotting wooden floor in its elephant barn. Chained in their spots in the barn overnight, the elephants had been standing in pools of urine and excrement, a condition that would never occur in the wild.

Since about 1980, the Portland Zoo has been using a device called a “squeeze” or a “crush” to immobilize elephants for foot and other medical care. It is essentially two hydraulically operated parallel walls. One moves left and right and the other pivots on a central axis.

The elephants are conditioned with treats to enter the squeeze, which is in a passageway between a yard and a barn.

“You never use it as the woodshed,” Sanford said. “There’s always something for them when they get in there--apples, bananas, the usual.”

Once the elephant is standing in the right spot, one wall closes in, the other is angled, and the keepers go to work.

“It physically prevents him from turning around. It doesn’t squeeze them up so their eyes bug out,” Sanford said. “He understands it’s a no-win situation. It’s a ‘Gotcha.’ ”

Roger Henneous, lead elephant keeper at the Washington Park Zoo, helped design the crush eight years ago. He said he knows of no other American zoo using the device. “I’ll be damned if I understand why,” Henneous said. “Every work camp in Asia has a crude timber version of this.”

The Portland Zoo has received a number of inquiries about the crush, “but when you start talking dollars, people hear their momma calling,” Henneous said.

Keepers in Portland came up with the idea after a bull elephant died of cardiac arrest after surgery to treat a foot infection.

“We lost the most prolific Asian male the zoo world has ever known because you couldn’t treat . . . chronic foot rot,” Henneous said. The elephant had produced 15 offspring in captivity before it died at the age of 27. Currently, Washington Park, with 24 live births, has the most successful captive breeding program among American zoos, Henneous said.

Washington Park does not use the crush to deal with its female elephants, which are generally easier to handle, Henneous said. Instead, firm discipline and behavior modification are used. “Training is mutual understanding and trust,” Henneous said. “There’s as much variation in the animals as there is in people. You’ve got to know the animal well enough to be able to read it.” Elephants are highly intelligent and social animals that crave contact with other elephants or people, he said.

Critical of Beatings

“I don’t think an honest-to-God, sure-enough trainer has to resort to beating. There are certainly heavy-handed types who, for lack of skill or imagination, will resort to that,” Henneous said.

“There’s a depressing number of the wrong kind of people attracted to elephant keeping, people with a macho attitude . . . who think they’re 9 feet tall and bulletproof. I always like to start out low key, the soft sell, and get across to (the elephants) that this is going to happen and it’s going to get even more unpleasant. . . . You develop a trust with them,” Henneous said.

“New people, they want to start out World War III and nuke ‘em till they glow.”

Henneous, 51, a keeper for 20 years, says he is a prime example of the way people become elephant keepers.

“I just wandered in off the streets. I don’t know of anybody in the years that I’ve been in the business who ever set out to be an elephant keeper. It’s something, more often than not, that people stumble into and become intrigued with.

“There have been times in my life when I’ve said, ‘Why didn’t I take up bunny rabbits or canaries?’ ”