If you happen to see a Hollywood celebrity wearing a "Free Flora" T-shirt, there's a back story. In 2001, L.A. filmmaker Cristina Colissimo had an intriguing potential documentary subject: a performing elephant's retirement after 18 years with a St. Louis-based circus. But there were plot complications. Flora, an orphan from a family of African elephants lost to poachers, had nowhere to retire. The documentary is still in the works, but Colissimo now has a second life as an animal advocate. While Flora cools her heels at the Miami Metrozoo (Colissimo's father is the founding director), Colissimo is spearheading a campaign to raise the $265,000 needed to settle Flora in the Elephant Sanctuary, a 2,700-acre natural-habitat elephant preserve in Hohenwald, Tenn. Her nonprofit group, Ahali Elephants, tracks and monitors captive elephants in North America.
Do people ask you why an elephant, and why Flora?
Sure, but it's amazing how many people automatically get why it's important to make sure these beautiful animals that spend their lives entertaining people deserve more. I see Flora as a role model for the future of all elephants in captivity. We know so little about these creatures, yet somehow we've put ourselves in the position to determine their fate. If we're going to take these animals out of the wild, we have a huge responsibility to take care of them as well.
Your organization proposes to do what for elephants in North America?
As far as we know, there's no [comprehensive] record of just how many elephants are in North America, where they are, what conditions they live in and if they're being abused or mistreated. We want to correct that. Also, if an elephant is living alone or in an inadequate situation, we want to help relocate them to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Flora spent 18 years in a circus in St. Louis. Was she abused in any way?
No, but you can say that being captive and made to entertain was a form of abuse. Since Flora was an orphan, she could have wound up anywhere. It was the luck of the draw she wound up with [circus producer] Ivor David Balding, who raised her almost literally as his daughter. She turns into a 9,000-pound puppy when she sees him.
Is it wrong to have an elephant in a circus, zoo or private collection?
In my mind, yes. Yet a lot of people still think there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. There are 134 accredited zoos in the U.S. If we took the annual budgets from these zoos and pumped the money into conserving these animals in their natural habitat, then we'd open up a whole new possibility for eco-tourism in these countries. I'd like to see the day when taking your child to see a lion in Africa happens more often than [taking your child] to see it in a zoo or circus, where it's in a captive, unnatural situation. I look forward to the day when we don't have zoos and we don't need sanctuaries.
Why $265,000? That's a lot of money for one elephant.
I like to say it's Flora's endowment. She's racked up quite a hotel bill in the Miami Metrozoo, where she's currently housed, until she's transferred to the sanctuary. The Rolling Stones have nothing on Flora. It's very expensive to keep an elephant; she eats about 400 pounds of food a day. Believe me, I know. I had her attached to my own personal credit card until we got nonprofit status. She owes about $65,000 to the Miami Metrozoo, and the rest is to build her portion of the barn at the sanctuary and for her long-term care. Elephants have a long life-span, about 70 years.
How do you justify $265,000 for one elephant with so many abused, homeless and hungry children in need?
Being the largest land animal, elephants seem to represent the entire animal kingdom. And people see elephants as having many similarities to humans: These animals need, they feel, they grieve, they have very strong emotions. Some even say elephants shed tears. My father always said to me, "The animal condition will never improve until the human condition does"; there is a linkage.
Your "Free Flora" campaign seems timely given the current controversy over the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
The current administration wants us to believe that by allowing the importation of endangered species for trophies and hunting, manufacturers who deal in skins and furs and such will help with revenue to the exporting country's conservation of these endangered animals. It's a preposterous proposition, and dangerous. There are only about 300,000 African elephants and 30,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. Elephants have no natural predators except human beings. Scientists call it the tree of life or the evolutionary chain. We may be at the top of the list, but we're on the list. I don't think many people think about that.