“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead
On Tuesday, July 24, 2012, the 5 year lawsuit seeking to close the LA Zoo elephant exhibit ended when the Judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs actor Robert Culp (deceased) and real estate broker Aaron Leider. Judge Segal stated in his 60 page decision, "All is not well at the Los Angeles Zoo. Contrary to what the zoo's representatives may have told the Los Angeles City Council in order to get construction of the $42 million exhibit approved and funded, the elephants are not healthy, happy or thriving."
The roots of this lawsuit go back 15 years to a group of students who called themselves the Elefriends. They were part of an animal issues club that VFTA Executive Director Melya Kaplan facilitated at Crossroads and New Roads schools. We met weekly to discuss elephants in captivity and specifically how to help the then 4 elephants at the LA Zoo.
We spoke before the Zoo Commission about the fact that the space was too small for animals who walk 100 miles a day. We met with the District Attorney and presented a packet of vet reports documenting animal abuse to the LA Zoo elephants, and we held press conferences. All to no avail. We watched helplessly as Tara died in 2004, as the city council voted in 2006 to move forward with the inadequate and expensive elephant exhibit, and a few months after the council’s vote we watched as Gita died in the same place and in the same way as Tara had. We were devastated.
This is a translation of a recent article in a popular Athenian newspaper. Below is my blog piece.
For the first time in the history of Greece, last week a 14 year old boy murdered his classmate using a knife. His father told the press that the boy had a history of torturing animals.
The incident was on the front page of every newspaper. The whole country was deeply shaken.
And like Cassandra who predicted the series of murders in the house of Atreus, but was not believed until it was too late, last November we educated the Hellenic Police on the cycle of violence. And while the police immediately understood, it took this tragedy for the public to believe it.
Now animal abuse will be seen in a completely different light: it is no longer just something boys do, but will now be understood as an expression of violence that doesn't stop there.
Many years ago, when I had just started the Animal Rights Club at Crossroads, one of my students announced that she wanted the club to protest a tug of war contest being held nearby between an elephant and a car. It was being staged as a publicity stunt to advertise the circus and the car. Ringling Brothers would supply the elephant.
That next Saturday, early on a hot June morning, we met in the parking lot with food, water, and large signs. An hour later a truck arrived, slowly pulling several long boxcars, and parked in the lot. Six men jumped out, each holding a long metal rod with a sharp steel crescent point at the top. The doors of the box cars opened and inside each one stood two elephants, chained by their feet to the floor. I froze. Brandishing the metal rods like a weapon, men began to take the elephants out one by one. All the elephant had to do was see the bull hooks, and she cowered. It was horrible. I knew how that elephant felt.
Suddenly I looked to my right. An elephant in the box car next to me was staring at me, piercing my eyes. In an instant I was just her gaze. There was no Melya. I snapped back. She turned away. She was being pulled off the truck.
I walked back to my students. They began to scream as they saw one of the elephants lift her leg as the keeper put a heavy chain around her ankle, the other end of which was being tied to the car. My students and several of the crowd began screaming for the men to stop. Several of my students began to cry. The media has just arrived. They turned their cameras on us. On a group of cherubic 11 year olds sobbing almost hysterically, begging the men to stop.
In the interest of fair journalism, the media asked Ringling Brothers what they thought of the students’ demands. They had no answer. They had no choice. The men took the chain off the elephant’s ankle and another off the car. The media took close-ups of the looks of relief on the faces of the cherubs.
I will never know who that elephant was. But she changed my life forever.
Founder and Executive Director, VFTA
My mentor and my friend.
I don’t remember how I met Pat. I feel she has always been in my life.
She never tired of my incessant barrage of questions. Her answers were my classes. She was a brilliant teacher.
And every year when I was teaching Animal Rights, I would ask Pat and Ed to come to LA and speak to my classes. She never said no. I watched as kids sat in awe of her. She talked about things they had never considered. Suddenly they were hearing the truth and they knew it. Their old, unquestioned assumptions about elephants crumbled forever. Every kid Pat spoke to could never set foot in a circus or zoo again. They now knew the truth.
But that was only a part of Pat’s magic.
I happened to be visiting Pat the day two elephants arrived from Ringling Brothers. They had just gotten off the truck. They stood shoulder to shoulder, in the middle of the huge enclosure that Pat and Ed had built for them, swaying back and forth, as if there were chains holding their feet in place.
Pat watched them for a while from outside the fence. Then she ordered us to stand away from the fence and she went in carrying two huge buckets of fruit. With incredible ease, she walked towards them, making little chirping sounds as she called their names. When she got within a few feet, they stopped swaying and turned to look at her. Pat began to toss bananas and watermelons to them. She watched as they approached the fruit with tremendous hesitation, as if they had never seen fruit before. When they realized what it was, they began to stuff it into their mouths as fast as they could! Within a few minutes, Pat was feeding them and stroking their trunks.
The magic of Pat!
There was another side of Pat. She was a warrior who fought for the rights of elephants. Through the city councils across the country, through the United States Congress, and in the media, Pat used every avenue to open people’s eyes.
Yet inside Pat the horrors of what elephants endure ate away at her. Again and again she battled against the greed and insane mindset that kept the cruelty in place. And as she did, she uncovered more and more darkness. Darkness she could not speak about. It caught in her throat. It slowly took her voice.
But that didn’t stop Pat. Circus owners across the country considered Pat the greatest threat to circuses with animals in the world.
Wherever Pat is, I know she will keep fighting. Nothing will stop her until this brutality is ended.
I would always tell her, Pat, you are the only person I can call who answers all my questions while washing an elephant! So Pat, wherever you are, would you give me a call? I have more questions.
- Melya Kaplan
Founder and Executive Director, VFTA