An Apology to Elephants: Counterpoint

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A lot of times, I don’t watch documentaries like this because I know I am going to see some kind of nasty abuse footage. I know I’m going to be disturbed and angry. HBO’s documentary, An Apology to Elephants, made me disturbed and angry, but not because of the abuse footage. It’s because I didn’t get enough information in general. 

The documentary spends quite a bit of time vilifying the use of elephants for entertainment purposes, especially in circuses. Elephant advocates tell us what circuses say, but we never get any statements from the entertainers. We are shown admittedly egregious footage and photographs of elephants being trained, and we are led to believe that this is the way they are all trained everywhere, without much of anything to verify it. I think that when you don’t bother to ask the opposition at all, it makes it very hard to change minds.

There is some educational value. The advocates tell us things about true elephant behavior, why elephants in captivity have foot problems, and talks briefly about training methods that are effective and use positive reinforcement. However, it feels like it’s been cut short.

The abuse footage in the film is sparse, and looks old. Some of it is even dated in the 1980s. None of it appears to be any more recent than 2000. I find it hard to believe that there was not more cell phone video and high definition images from undercover photographers in the 2000s and 2010s– especially if the abuse of elephants in entertainment facilities is so widespread today.

Some of the footage has no context. You see an elephant running and screaming, but you don’t see what happened just prior to prompt the behavior. Was it poked by one of the dreaded elephant hooks, or was it just startled by something innocuous? 

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Lily Tomlin in An Apology to Elephants

I’m not saying none of these things are true. I’m saying that Apology needs to show and tell, and I feel like I didn’t get enough of the show.

Thomas Edison’s electrocution of Topsy the elephant is presented with little back story, and is the only time Apology gets into history in-depth. The people at this time did not understand the dangers of electricity, and saw it as a novelty. Thomas Edison took this opportunity to educate people about those dangers. Topsy’s electrocution was also part of Edison’s campaign against George Westinghouse and AC current, so this was also a business move for the inventor of the light bulb.

The film of the elephant’s demise is exactly what you would expect. The elephant stiffens and dies in seconds. That’s it. There is nothing unexpected about it. While the circumstances leading up to the elephant’s death were horrible, what we are shown was likely far more humane than other methods of putting down an animal at that time.

One of the methods discussed was hanging. Would you rather have had it done that way? Others condemn the people of this time for how Topsy died. I applaud them for taking a giant step forward in the name of humanity.

That’s not how Apology tells the story, especially in less than sixty seconds. That’s the most history in the film aside from a couple of sentences in the beginning.

They discuss elephant hunting and the ivory trade, and they rightfully condemn the practice. However, there are never any suggestions on how to provide the people with alternative, equally lucrative income. No one has any ideas on how to address demand for ivory, or the cultural differences that help create it. There are no suggestions for an alternative artistic medium, or on penalties for poachers and buyers. It’s all just supposed to magically stop. 

HBO-elephantsI think they would like us to go out and protest circuses by passing out stickers to children who are on their way in to see the elephants. If someone came up to my kid and shoved something at them as shown in this documentary, elephants would be the LAST thing eco-activists needed to worry about. However, after watching a film like this I guess that’s all they feel like they can do.

Apology is informative to most, but doesn’t really offer any solutions, and that’s frustrating. I hate that elephants are treated this way, but I don’t know what to do about it. There was an opportunity here to not wallow in pity, but to do something to honor and change elephants’ lives. This documentary could have benefited from about another 30 minutes of time and a few more interviews. Whether you cry for the elephants or the shortness of the film, have the tissues ready. You’re going to need them.

An Apology To Elephants can be seen several times this month on HBO channels, and is also available on HBO Go.

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