Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Gita (A Ramble)

Gita, a 48-year-old Asian elephant at the Los Angeles Zoo, has died. Unsurprisingly, this has lent renewed fuel to the call for Los Angeles to close its elephant exhibit and move the two remaining elephants to a sanctuary. I doubt this will happen, though, since L.A. recently gave the go-ahead to construct a $39-million, 3.5-acre elephant exhibit. Meanwhile, Billy--the zoo's 28-year-old bull--spends his time alone in the zoo's elephant enclosure. Ruby, the zoo's other elephant, has spent the past two and a half years out of public view (as had Gita). This recent L.A. CityBeat article paints a picture of the life these animals are living. It makes reference to the practice of walking the elephants around the zoo in the mornings before opening, which I first read about in Cecil Castelluci's wonderful book The Queen of Cool. On the one hand this is a heartening practice; on the other, it strikes me as being similar to yard exercise in a prison.

This all makes me so sad that it's hard for me to know where to begin. These are, first of all, social creatures. To isolate them in small enclosures, to substitute a territory of hundreds of square feet for hundreds of square miles . . . I don't have anything eloquent to say about this. I know that people want to see elephants, that children love them, that we like to be close to them. But I think, really, that we love elephants too much to leave them alone, to give them their space, to grant them quality living where they have lived for generations. Perhaps elephants in zoos and circuses help create empathy for their troubles in the wild--or perhaps they inure us to the complexities of the elephant problem in Africa and Asia, where they are not simply curiosities but destructive and terrifying realities, colliding with human expansion in ways that are good for neither species but will--in the end--claim their families and culture* rather than ours.

For over a year now I've been wanting to write about elephants, and while I've come at it peripherally a couple of times--they've made cameos in some of my stories--one of the reasons I've not tackled it head-on yet is that the subject is so big. The animals are complex, their ecosystems are complex, the politics and economics of their protection and exploitation are complex. And perhaps it's a mistake to try to encompass all of that. (Or perhaps it's better to condense it into deceptively simple terms, as Margo Lanagan did in "Sweet Pippit.") I haven't worked it out yet. But I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself to get it right, and I think that's what's making it so hard.

In case it's not clear from the above, I've come down on the anti-zoo side of this argument. Not for all animals--although in almost all cases better habitats could be constructed--but for most megafauna, and for elephants in particular. The alternative for those elephants already in zoos here in the U.S. is sanctuary. If you've got a little money to donate, you could do worse than to give some to the sanctuary at Hohenwald.

* Yeah, I said culture. Deal with it.