The Elephant in the Room

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Frances Bull African Elephant

© Frances Bull

Written by:  Heather Clemenceau

Toronto has, in the last year, been a hotbed of controversy when it comes to wild animals.  First the city saw the media circus that surrounded Darwin “the IKEA monkey,” who escaped from a crate in a car – an oversight that led to an unjust lawsuit against the sanctuary who cared for him afterwards.  Since Darwin’s former owner has not finished giving grief to the sanctuary or making a laughing stock of herself, there will be a subsequent appeal in 2014 or 2015.  Most recently, the Toronto Zoo elephants (the TZ-3) were relocated to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California two weeks ago, amid outcry from zoo aficionados and exotics owners across Canada and the US.

Suffice it to say that all is not well with the charismatic megafauna in Canadian zoos –vitriolic controversy has erupted over Limba, the Bowmanville Zoo elephant, who by most accounts, is ready to retire from standing on stools,  attending weddings, and launching wineries.  After animal activist Michael Sizer proposed a direct action protest against the Bowmanville Santa Claus Parade,  the parade organizers uninvited Limba,  to avoid becoming a battleground between the activists and others who insisted that it was their right to see this aging elephant entertain them.

In response to the un-vitation, Zoo Director Michael Hackenberger withdrew all the animals from the parade out of spite, prompting outrage from zoo proponents who claim their holiday is now ruined.  I don’t quite understand how the parade is “ruined” since it hasn’t featured Limba since approximately 2009 anyway?  Nevertheless,  nastygrammers, rabblerousers and Facebook spammers made veiled threats about the possibility of spontaneous tire damage to protesters vehicles (got the screen caps to prove it) while attempting to strongarm protesters into abandoning the right to freedom of peaceful assembly (section 2c), as accorded in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is entrenched in Canada’s constitution.

elephant carousel

© Heather Clemenceau

Protests at the zoo over the summer have focused on Limba,  while Hackenberger claims that the protesters use of megaphones is in conflict with his “stance to maintain animal welfare.”  Not so fast!   While I agree that inconsiderate use of a megaphone near flight animals would indeed be a foolish undertaking, I’m reluctant to accept his assertions that animals are being spooked.  But now the Durham Region Humane Society is involved, and to my mind, this is a good thing.

“Tuesday night’s council resolution came in response to a request from zoo owner Michael Hackenberger for the municipality to ban megaphones and other voice amplifiers within 50 metres of the zoo entrance.

It directs staff to work with the Durham Region Humane Society, police and the zoo to “help regulate any activity that may cause giraffes or other animals to be in distress.”

Protesters have held two recent rallies in front of the facility about 50 kilometres east of Toronto, calling for the retirement of Limba, a 50-year-old elephant.”

Well,  these directions are hardly revolutionary;  the police have typically been in attendance at zoo protests and know that the protesters are well-behaved individuals who responsibly limit the use of the megaphone to sporadic incidents.

“The young ungulates are a “consummate prey species” and naturally skittish, he said. A megaphone blaring the apparent evils of zoos could send one into panicked flight, risking injury if it crashes into a fence or falls. “

I visited Bowmanville zoo for the first time a few months ago.  I paid my $23 admission and walked the entirety of the park for one main reason – to see if the megaphone use was disturbing the animals – any animals.  If there was any evidence that animals were panicking, I know that these very conscientious protesters would have simply ceased using the megaphone.  Because the weanling giraffes were the subject of Hackenberger’s complaint about the megaphone use, I loitered around the giraffe area to the point where it was probably attracting attention.  But Hackenberger might want to ban screeching children from the zoo before he gets too overwrought about megaphones – I had to strain to hear any voices coming from the street a few hundred feet away – at various times I would not have been able to hear someone speaking beside me due to the noise the kids were making right next to me.  And you can’t hear the megaphone on the video I recorded below either.  Neither apparently,  can the giraffes…..

“Hackenberger said the racket, particularly megaphones, can distress animals. He’s particularly worried about a pair of giraffe youngsters who arrived several weeks ago and live at the front of the complex.”

VME catchphrase

This truth-challenged individual simply cannot be honest about the parade protest. The animal rights community recognizes some of the same people from the Darwin IKEA monkey case as chronic, habitual liars.  It’s quite clear from reading Michael Sizer’s manifesto that neither he nor anyone else has any intention of causing harm to animals or people. http://www.examiner.com/article/activist-explains-why-not-having-limba-at-santa-s-parade

Note from the video that Michael Hackenberger really had every opportunity to mention problems or concerns about “de-spooking” the young giraffes to the sounds of the megaphone – I specifically asked him what concerns he had about the new giraffes.  He feels open enough to discuss the issues with parasitic infestations of the various species at the zoo and the zoos’ preventative maintenance protocols.  He didn’t even mention the megaphone.  Also note that when the giraffes are out of quarantine, their paddock will encompass the most southerly part of the zoo and the giraffes will be right next to the street.  Also notice that there is a backhoe in the same general area as the quarantine paddock.  I guarantee you that the first time a flight animal hears a backhoe roar to life, they will take notice!   However,  after they are desensitized to the noise,  they will take no further notice of it since they don’t see it as a threat.  In my opinion,  a backhoe is far more likely to induce fear in flight animals than a megaphone that’s almost impossible to hear.  That’s because the protesters are standing across the street from a fairly busy roadway while conducting their protests.  They are not even situated on the same side of the street as the zoo.

Mr. Hackenberger indicates in the conversation that the giraffes are slowly being acclimatized to ambient noises, which is why they’re in a small fenced-in paddock – so they don’t hurt themselves if they are startled.  People might think it’s unfair to house them in a tiny space,  but it’s a actually a common-sense solution – for the short term.  But the whole time I’m interviewing him, the activists were out on the street using the megaphone, and neither Hackenberger nor the giraffes reacted to it.  So I can only agree with zoo protest organizer Nicholas Wilvert that the attempt to silence the megaphone is a tactic to squelch free speech.

Zoo Groups spread false info

How I wish the pro-zoo zealots would quit making shit up. There are no children set loose to run in the zoo and create havoc on behalf of the protesters (certainly not at $23 a pop either). The only screaming comes from children inside the zoo with their parents. The only truthful remark here is that Hackenberger asked for a moratorium on the use of the megaphone. Everything else is complete and utter fiction. Disruption on the zoo opening day was actually caused by a man who appeared to be a zoo supporter,  objecting to an audience member asking pointed questions.  He diverted the Q&A period,  so please get your facts straight!

I’m actually in complete agreement with the town of Clarington’s council – I agree that the Durham Region Humane Society should evaluate the use of the megaphone.  I hope any review they conduct will be impartial and accurate, and in the best interest of the animals whilst balancing the rights of the protesters.  At this time, there seems to be a lack of evidence that animals are being spooked by protesters at the zoo,  despite the outrageous stories you may read on pro-zoo boards to discredit the animal rights activists.

Blogger Laura Templeton describes the attempts to discredit the animal rights community.  I’ve also observed this phenomenon reaching a fever pitch over the TZ-3 elephants transfer to PAWS – during and after which so many outright fabrications surfaced about activists!  If the animal rights community in Durham Region and the GTA committed ¼ of the horrible acts that are attributed to us, many of us would have been jailed and completely ostracized from our communities.

Even if there is disagreement over Limba’s care or her long-distance trips,  we must acknowledge that animals just do not belong stuck in our world irrespective of how well we treat them. I am not anti-zoo myself, since many animals do well in captivity or are capable of thriving in carefully constructed enviros.  But Canada is not geographically suited to animals that evolved in equatorial climates or evolved to travel long distances as part of their routine or foraging habits.  Elephants’ bodies were designed to shed heat and not struggle to maintain it.  Cold climates and tight enclosures – they’re a far cry from the vast hot expanses of elephants’ natural environments.

taj mahal and elephants

© Heather Clemenceau

It cannot be said that because Limba seems to be a gentle elephant that she is therefore predictable in her behaviour either.  Behaviour can change unexpectedly as these animals may eventually snap from years of stress.   Limba has apparently hurt several trainers in the past.  When I saw her at the zoo a couple of months ago, she stood at the extremity of her paddock with her head faced as far away from gawkers as possible.  Even if Limba is treated well when she is travelling to circus events, wedding promotions, or winery outings, seeing her at these types of events desensitizes people to the plight of performing animals and encourages people to visit Ringling Brothers circus which has a nightmarish reputation for abusive practices.  This perpetuates the breeding of animals that will only have to endure captivity, unsuitable environments, and abusive training methods in circuses.

I don’t personally doubt that Limba has accepted her caretakers, but again, she really had little choice.  Humans are a poor substitute for members of an animals’ own species.  It cannot be said to be free will when there is an absence of choice.

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About heatherclemenceau

Hopefully as I've grown older I've also grown wiser, but one thing I've definitely become cognizant of is the difference between making a living and making a life. Frequently outraged by some of life's cruelties, and respect diversity. But.....I don't suffer fools gladly, and occasionally, this does get me into some trouble! I have the distinction of being the world's worst golfer - no wait, I do believe that there is a gypsy in Moldavia who is a worse golfer than I. Nor am I much of a dancer - you won't see a booty-shakin' flygirl routine from me! I'm also not the kind of cook who can whip up a five-course meal on a radiator either! And I've never figured out how to get an orchid to bloom a second time. I love to discuss literature, science, philosophy, and sci-fi , or even why Seinfeld is funny on so many levels. Words move me. I'm very soft-hearted about most things, especially animals, but I have a stoicism about me that is sometimes interpreted incorrectly. I do have a definite edge and an often "retro-adolescent" sense of humour at times. I'm a big advocate of distributed computing projects to advance science. Check out http://boinc.berkeley.edu/ if you want to find out more. I'm an eclectic (but not crazy) vegetarian, and as such, it's a personal practice of mine to seduce innocent meat-eaters into cruising the (salad) bars at every opportunity. You would be powerless to resist. I was recently surprised to find that a computer algorithm concluded that I write like Dan Brown, which is funny because I didn't think Dan Brown could actually write. Check out your own style - http://iwl.me/ Oh, and I love impractical shoes and funky hats.

3 responses »

  1. Excellent (as always)!
    Hmmmm, you can clearly hear and see that the megaphone is absolutely not an issue for the giraffes whatsoever. In fact, you cannot even remotely hear it…..lies, lies and more lies coming out of that place. Just the fact that Limba is ALONE is enough to warrant a transfer to sanctuary or ANYWHERE other than Bowmanville Zoo. This fact just cannot be argued. End of story….

  2. Very well said Heather! An open, fair and balanced report about the Bowmanville Zoo, its owner Michael Hackenberger and of course sweet Limba, their gentle giant and now senior “centrepiece” of the zoo, who has more than earned her right to a sanctuary retirement. The Zoo is a business and therefore puts profit ahead of her best interests, along with all the animals which are “commodities”. Keeping Limba incarcerated in a small space, alone, isolated, in our cold climate & forced to be a prop at every money making opportunity are all valid reasons for protesting her plight. Without animal activists drawing attention to all of these things & informing the public, her rights & well being will continue to be trampled. The ruse to outlaw the use of a megaphone is absurd. I heard nothing on that video and the baby giraffes (confined to such an inadequate pen) appeared to be completely indifferent to everything, including the presence of any megaphone noise they may have been hearing. Let’s hope that the Durham Region Humane Society and Clarington council won’t bow down to his demands and will recognize the insidious cruelty, the very real “elephant in the room”. Let’s hope they take action on behalf of Limba, instead.

  3. Pingback: Bowmanville – Comfortably Numb? | heatherclemenceau

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