How Will You Celebrate Elephant Awareness Day?

While August 3, 2012 was the official first annual Elephant Awareness Day, it’s not too late to honor the magnificent elephant by becoming more aware of the horrors they still face everyday at the hands of humans.

When one attends the circus, the elephant in the room is, well, the elephant in the room-- a gentle giant prodding around in ridiculous human garb, performing tricks to the delight of tots and their notoriously short attention spans.

Like so many animal performers, pachyderms receive little thought toward their treatment by an ensurious audience. That is of course, until one strikes back--a behemoth fury of tusk and mass, trampling, gouging and retaliating their way to freedom, or perhaps as close a state of sanity they can attain in a hopeless situation.

In our hi-tech world of entertainment dedicated to sanitized versions of pastimes past, I assumed that the horrific fates elephants once faced at the hands of cruel masters was a phenomenon belonging to antiquity, or at least other, less civilzed cultures still wallowing in cruel traditions.

So when I happened upon the first ever Elephant Awareness Day, my sense of childhood whimsy was stoked and the idea of taking my 4-year-old to see to the circus flashed across my mind--it was something I’ve never done and perhaps it could even be fun.

That is, of course, assuming that torture chambers of yesteryear have given way to modern sensibilties while advances in science and decades of research have led to an admiration of the majestic and truly awesome fellow life form.

Turns out, they haven’t--and that’s the whole point of Elephant Awareness Day. What my mind momentarily  translated as a day devoted to enjoying the creature is fittingly a day dedicated to spreading the word about the continuing atrocities committed against the beautiful elephant in the name of entertainment.

Even the city of Los Angeles has gotten the message from groups like PETA and In Defense of Animals that the way elephants are treated in circuses remains a barabaric practice, prompting June 19’s landmark resolution by civic leaders to designate August 3 as Elephant Awareness Day.

But it’s not just circuses under fire. Last week, nearly a month after the city adopted the resolution, L.A. Superior Court Judge John L. Segal  ruled in favor of two local citizens and animal welfare advocates who sued the L.A. Zoo for the treatment of their three elephants, Billy, Jewel and Tina, which Segal called “particularly poor”, according to an L.A. Weekly article.

Segal also issued an injunction requiring that the zoo cease use of bullhooks and electric shock as a means to work with the animal.

“Captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species, which the undisputed evidence shows elephants are,” Segal said in the article. “To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional.”

That’s why In Defense of Animals, PETA, Animal Defenders International and JulietteSpeaks will hand out leaflets to educate the public about the suffering of the elephants at the L.A. Zoo. Saturday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

This event follows Friday’s rally calling for a ban on circuses at Van Nuys City Hall, which was also attended by teenage activist Juliette West of JuietteSpeaks. The 16-year-old is the subject of the documentary of How I Became an Elephant and was honored by the city of L.A. for her work to bring awareness to Billy the elephant’s ordeal at the L.A. Zoo.

West, and not the circus or the zoo, is the kind of role model I want for my child, for whom I’ve spent all summer compiling a well-rounded roster of programs designed to titilate his young senses and stimulate passion for the natural world, and compassion for the creatures and plants that make it one of countless wonders.

As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "One can measure the greatness of a nation by the way it treats its animals.”

For a sophisticated animal like the elephant, who live long, socially complex lives as members of extended families, it’s especially tragic. Their well-known attributes of incredible memory and high intelligence are exactly what render them so psychologically vulnerable to the trauma they face at the hands of unsympathetic circus trainers and zoo keepers.

That’s elephantainment--and it’s not a pretty picture.

Becoming aware of the pachyderm's predicament is one way to Celebrate Elephant Awareness Day. Other ways include signing a petition, watching an early showing of How I became an Elephant available online until midnight Saturday, spreading the word on social media or simply learning more about elephants.

Enjoy these facts from Elephant Voices

  • Mirror self-recognition suggests that elephants are self-aware and numerous observations of empathetic and other behavior suggest that elephants have a rudimentary theory of mind. 
  • Elephants can discriminate between the bones of elephants and those of other animals, and they respond to the bones of elephants with special contemplation. 
  • It's true that elephants do have a good memory and this quality in addition to high intelligence and sociality, like humans, make them vulnerable to stress and to trauma and its longer-term psychological consequences. 
  • Elephants are a keystone species as they play a pivotal role in structuring both plant and animal communities, contributing to biodiversity through seed dispersal and the creation of habitat mosaics. 
  • Elephants groups are often headed by a matriarch and exhibit a high degree of social complexity. 
  • Their social network is unusually large, radiating out from the natal family through bond groups, clans and independent adult males and beyond to strangers. The close and enduring cooperative social relationships operating between individuals and families within this fluid multi-tiered society is rare in the animal kingdom. 
  • Elephants have very large and complex brains. At an average of 4.8 kg the elephant brain is the largest among living and extinct terrestrial mammals. 
  • Elephants have the greatest volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing of all land mammals. The neocortex, which in humans is the seat of enhanced cognitive function such as working memory, planning, spatial orientation, speech and language, is large and highly convoluted. 

For more information about the Raise Awareness at the Los Angeles Zoo event Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., email Catherine@idausa.org or call 323-301-5730.

SandraT August 04, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Thank you SO much for this fantastic article, Ms. Burreson. Keep speaking up for the voiceless!
Joe Swope August 04, 2012 at 07:07 PM
Great article. Sadly it is too easy to forget the creatures we love to see.
Heidi Hoehn August 04, 2012 at 09:08 PM
I was lucky enough to spend May 3rd with a herd of rescued African elephants at Camp Jabulani in South Africa. No one who has ever encounted an elephant in the wild can doubt that these are creatures of great intelligence, and great empathy with a highly developed family and social structure. It was a privilege to have the kind of time and access which is possible to this Jabulani herd and I strongly recommend it to anyone with a true 'eli' passion and wants to have a close encounter.
Paul C. August 05, 2012 at 08:27 PM
This is so well written! Thank you, Shawna, for getting the facts out about this majestic animal. There seems to be worldwide persecution of elephants, so sad..


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