An Apology to Elephants: Counterpoint

By Tamara Winfrey on May 16, 2013 to Documentaries


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? 

Lily Tomlin in An Apology to Elephants

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.

  • lilcamper

    You ‘applaud’ those who electrocuted an innocent animal as a ‘giant step forward for humanity’? People back then understood that cruelty to animals is wrong, did they not? They knew that the electricity would kill the animal, correct? Thus what they did is inexcusable, period. The dangers or wonders, however you look at it, of electricity could have been demonstrated without killing an elephant. All this proves is how backwards and thoughtless and wasteful our species can be, and that in all these decades we haven’t come very far. If you excuse what Edison did back then because of ignorance – they didn’t know better way back when – what is the excuse for the continued abuse of these creatures in 2013? People who pay to watch animals debased in circuses should be ashamed of themselves, and it’s sad that more isn’t done to make them aware of the abuse. But some people no matter how much footage you show them, no matter how recent, will rationale it away or claim it’s fake.
    Answer me this – why do you need footage to understand that making an elephant live most of its life on a cramped train car or chained up in an arena, denying it the freedom to roam, eat, sleep and mate when he/she wants to is cruel?? If a dog were chained up as long as most circus elephants are an arrest would be made.

    • Ashley

      Thank you, your first sentence is one of several questions ringing through my head.

  • Shane Dean

    How you can even counter the documentary I can never understand. Absolute moronic “journalism”

  • EpiClesis

    Don’t try to white wash or rationalize what is in the doc. Do not try to make excuses. It is horrible what we do to creatures, elephants, dolphins, killer whales etc… BOYCOTT CIRCUSES and the like. Listen to your heart … not your head.

  • Jef Dinsmore

    Documentary films can be catergorized in many ways. One such delineation is the one between the informative and the issue-focused ones. Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” is of the former and Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” is of the latter. The documentary cited here also is of the latter category.

    The only intent here was to get viewers sympathetic to the cause and if you watch a film with its right intent in mind you might just see a different film. You would think it logical to have elephant handlers from the circus give their side of the story to round out the issue but the producing team of this doc only wanted to use words and images that accompish their agenda.

    It is easy to fal into the trap of thinking a documentary is meant to be informative in giving both sides of the story. I know better and I fell for it in my ‘gut reaction’ to MEA CULPA MAXIMA. In short, It shed poor light on the Catholic Church and the Church had no outlet to respond. I thought that a fault of the film and ended up not changing those thoughts after I realized that was not the film’s desire to do so.

    I do agree however, that this film did have the opportunity to give some options on how to aid their cause but I guess they wanted you to do the footwork. The goal was to incite concern for the elephant’s plight and on that level it worked.

  • I agree with you Tamara, it’s frustrating to see something like this and not see more about what we can do to help. As someone who’s worked in dog and exotic bird rescue for many years, the sad truth is that some of these beautiful animals won’t be saved. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working as hard as we can to prevent this from happening in the future. There are several elephant rescue organizations to which people can donate money or volunteer their time. It seems that this documentary leaves the research up to the viewer, and I’m sure some people will be inspired to search for ways to help. I do think that they missed a big opportunity here, by focusing more on the shock value and less on the possible solutions. I am, however, glad that thanks to this documentary, more people will understand that this is a serious issue and one which deserves our attention.

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