Two months after an 8,000-pound elephant at the Louisville Zoo tried to do a headstand on his chest, Troy Ramsey is willing to forgive the creature that left him without a spleen, two-thirds of his pancreas and the ability to earn a living.
But the 28-year-old machinist is suing zoo authorities and the pachyderm’s owner and handler for allegedly losing control of Kenya, the female African elephant that attacked him on June 29.
Ramsey was visiting the zoo when Kenya wandered away from her barn and, with a snap of her trunk, picked him up and smashed him to the ground, then tried to gore him with her tusks.
“You can’t keep an elephant pent up in chains and expect it to be right in the head,” said Ramsey, who has been studying up on the animals ever since his injury. “Elephants are intelligent animals and, knowing they are not in their natural environment, don’t want to be there. It must be a private hell for them.”
Until recently, most elephant owners and managers dismissed such arguments as ill-informed, even anthropomorphic. Not any more. Elephant attacks are on the rise--prompting hand-wringing and soul-searching among officials at zoos and circuses across the nation over how to better manage these intelligent, powerful, moody and misunderstood land giants.
Since 1976, 21 people--most of them handlers and trainers in zoos and circuses--have been stomped, crushed or gored to death by elephants in the United States, according to a study conducted by the National Zoo in Washington. Eight of those fatalities occurred during the past five years.
An average year will see at least one of the 600 people who work with elephants in the United States killed by one or more of the 600 elephants in captivity. Statistically, that makes elephant handling the most dangerous profession in the nation--three times more hazardous than coal mining.
No one can say with certainty why elephants that have been docile for years can suddenly turn against their handlers. And elephant experts, who typically establish superiority over these creatures through discipline and a constant air of confidence, concede that they do not know what an elephant thinks or how to prevent them from hurting humans.
What they do know about elephants is that they are highly intelligent social animals that travel long distances in herds--a situation that exists nowhere in the nation for captive elephants and that no zoo or circus can afford to provide.
Facing bad publicity, soaring liability costs and increasing calls for better safeguards, the latest trend for handlers is to stay behind iron bars and gates, with minimal contact with the animals. But this hands-off strategy may exacerbate other problems, such as what to do when a captive elephant gives birth and then tries to kill its offspring.
Others are getting out of the high-maintenance, expensive elephant business altogether. No wonder. Federal laws banning importation of elephants have pushed the average cost of pachyderms, which are frequently traded among zoos, circuses and private owners, to $100,000. Liability insurance for an elephant runs about $25,000 a year--double the annual insurance for a 1994 Rolls Royce Corniche in Los Angeles County.
A zoo or circus without elephants? Some circus officials predict that only the largest five circuses will offer performing elephant acts in 10 years. Last month, the Mesker Park Zoo in Indiana dropped elephants from its $30-million renovation plan because the animals need more room and care than it can afford to provide.
“We are now asking ourselves: Can we continue to do this? Are we being fair to the species?” said Alan Roocroft, chief elephant handler at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, who dreams of one day establishing a mega-preserve where the climate would permit an unsheltered elephant habitat year-round.
“The way that elephants are being kept in captivity in a lot of cases is contrary to how they should be kept for their well-being,” Roocroft said. “If they are not allowed to move adequate distances during the day, for example, they are not fulfilling their requirements as an organism.”
The results of confinement and deprivation, he added, can include “abnormal behavior, physical problems, aggression.”
Some animal-welfare activists say they believe that the nation’s aging population of elephants, who reproduce only rarely in captivity, are actively rebelling against a life of torment at the hands of their taskmasters.
“Some elephant handlers say they don’t understand why elephants do these violent things, but I don’t buy it,” said Pat Derby, director of a California group called the Performing Animal Welfare Society. “Elephants are fighting back against the chains, restricted movement, harsh treatment and boredom.
“At the same time, elephant owners know that people are watching them more closely these days, so they are reluctant to punish their elephants in public,” she said. “That is opening windows of opportunity for elephants to lash out--it’s almost like they know that now is the time to fight back.”
Most zoo curators and circus owners would not go that far. However, John Lehnhardt, assistant curator at the National Zoo, acknowledged that “it is possible that the aggression that comes to some elephants is motivated by the conditions they live in.”
“Physical abuse and dominance-control remain a major method of training elephants, but the tide is turning,” Lehnhardt said. “Public tolerance of these (violent) incidents is changing, and it is the threat of legislation and push of animal-welfare advocates that is motivating that change.”
Elephant handlers want to do better too. Yet the most popular tools and methods used to discipline elephants in zoos and circuses remain leg chains, beatings and the ankus, a sharply pointed hook for prodding in sensitive areas of the skin.
In February, 1988, five handlers at the San Diego Wild Animal Park disciplined an unruly elephant named Dunda by chaining all four of her legs and pulling them apart, and then beating her with hickory ax handles above the trunk and between the eyes. Dunda, who was moved this year to the Oakland Zoo, now obeys.
An investigation into that highly publicized beating prompted state Sen. Dan McCorquodale to sponsor a bill outlawing any method of training or management that scars an elephant’s skin. The bill became law in 1989.
But that law is not enough to ensure that elephants are properly managed or to prevent them from developing aggressive tendencies that can escalate into human fatalities. As it stands, there is no enforceable standard anywhere for elephant management, identifying dangerous pachyderms or evaluating the effectiveness of the myriad “elephant programs” touted by zoos and circuses today.
Meanwhile, a high turnover rate of elephant handlers--who typically earn a few dollars an hour more than minimum wage--means that elephants in zoos and circuses face a constant stream of keepers without the experience or knowledge to establish potentially life-saving bonds.
Some say these problems were brought into high relief on Aug. 20 when a panicked female African elephant named Tyke trampled her trainer to death during a Circus International performance in Honolulu and then escaped into city streets, where she was cut down in a hail of bullets fired by police officers.
That tragedy, which was recorded on a videotape that horrified television viewers around the world, was initially represented by the animal’s owners, the Hawthorne Corp. of Hawthorne, Ill., as an example of a rogue elephant that mysteriously ran amok.
It was later learned, however, that Tyke had gone wild twice last year on the Mainland. One of those rampages left a groom with two broken ribs. An autopsy conducted on the trainer, Allen Campbell, 37, found the presence of cocaine and alcohol.
Other recent deaths include that of world-famous elephant trainer Axel Gautier, who was stomped to death in May, 1993, while visiting the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephant breeding farm in Williston, Fla.
Last summer, an interpreter with the Moscow State Circus was attacked by an elephant and suffered a fractured skull, broken ribs and a punctured lung minutes before a planned appearance on the “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee” TV show in New York.
In February, 1992, an 8,000-pound elephant named Janet charged out of the Great American Circus arena in Palm Bay, Fla., carrying two children and an adult on her back before she was shot dead by police officers.
Like Tyke, Janet’s carcass was hauled to a local dump.
“I think these elephants are trying to tell us that zoos and circuses are not what God created them for,” said Palm Bay Police Officer Blayne Doyle, who deeply regrets having had to fire 47 rounds into Janet’s head to stop her rampage. “But we have not been listening.”
But there is no question that the tide is turning. Even circus lobbyist Steve Kendall, director of the Animal Husbandry Society and a man some animal-welfare activists consider the Darth Vader of the elephant debate, says he believes that the time has come for tougher safety restrictions.
“There is a problem in the way elephants are being handled in the industry now,” Kendall said. “We are going to have to come up with tougher standards for the care of elephants in captivity. And if that means putting irresponsible owners under, so be it.”
Both sides expect a showdown over the future of captive elephants in what are literally questions of life and death for the animals and their keepers. Should elephants and their handlers be regulated more closely? Should troublesome elephants be taken away from their owners? If so, where should these animals go? How much space does an elephant need? If, as some studies suggest, the answer is 4 to 10 elephants per square mile, where should such preserves be built? Who should pay for them?
Peter Luvus, owner of the elephant that attacked Ramsey at the Louisville Zoo, said: “Elephants learn bad habits from people. It’s all in the training.”
Luvus, who contracts with the zoo to operate an elephant ride concession, naturally excludes himself from that rule of thumb.
“It was all an accident,” Luvus said, standing beside the elephant that has been used to give rides at the Louisville Zoo for 10 years. “Kenya doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. If she did, Troy Ramsey would be dead.”
Luvus has placed Kenya in temporary retirement at the ride concession, where she stands in chains swaying back and forth in frustration.
“I have faith that the elephant community will get through the confusion we find ourselves in today--there is no alternative,” said Thomas Otten, director of the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash. “We owe it to the people in our barns, and to the elephants in managed situations and those left in the wilds.”
But the clock is ticking.
Some say the estimated 450,000 elephants left in the wilds of Africa and Asia will be nearly extinct within 20 years, most of them victims of the world’s craving for ivory. With only 10% of the elephants in captivity giving birth, the world’s zoo and circus population could disappear within 50 years.