Letter To Judy
A woman named Judy posted a message on my Facebook page last night – she was responding to my writing about Joshua Rockwood – asking me if I was in favor of the use of elephants in circuses to entertain people. I said I was not sure when it became a crime for animals to entertain and uplift human beings, they have been doing it for thousands of years – just watch the children and the horses in Central Park – and we humans have greatly benefited from it.
Most of us could really use some entertainment now. Just look at the news.
My therapy dog Red entertains dying children in hospitals sometimes, it is a beautiful and precious thing to see. It would be a difficult thing to explain to them that he was being abused by taking him to see them.
Judy answered me right away, she replied that the elephants were fortunate, they would now live in their natural world, as they were meant to live. I was struck by the message, because it speaks to the plight of animals in our world, from the New York Carriage Horses to the elephants in the circus to the animals on Joshua Rockwood's farm to the dogs in our beds and backyards.
And it speaks to the fact that in our time, the people who speak for animals seem to know nothing about them.
I asked Judy if she knew where this natural world for Asian elephants might be, and who was going to take them there, and care for them when the rains came and the poachers came and the bulldozers came to take their land. She did not reply.
But she said something else. Elephants, she said, were meant to live a natural life. They were not put on the earth to do stupid tricks to entertain us. I said I agreed, they were put on the earth to live their lives, naturally, and in nature.
But we have destroyed their natural world. We are eager to talk about abuse, but we are not so eager to take responsibility for what we have done to them. We have lost touch with them and what they need, we have fantasized their often brutal and cruel lives in the wild, even as we relentlessly destroy it. And we have found another world for them to inhabit, one with shelter and food and attention and purpose. We cannot offer them their natural life any longer, or even a perfect life. But we can offer them a new world, new work. It seems to be what we do.
And then, we traumatize them and the people who love them, and we destroy their world again.
I asked Judy if she worried about what would become of the carriage horses in New York, and the ponies in farmer's markets, and the horses in Hollywood movies and the elephants in the circus and the chickens and cows on the farms once we banned their worked and harassed and persecuted and arrested all of the people who own them.
She did not wish to talk about it, she refused to talk about it. I have yet to meet any of the people who rejoice at the banning of animals who have given much thought or taken much responsibility for what will become of them after we have exploited them once more, this time to help us feel better about our destructive and oblivious selves.
Animals are sadly at our mercy, they pay the price for our shallow and selfish – and very selective – ideas about morality. We live in a culture drunk on judging others, shy about looking in the mirror.
My border collie Red was meant to live in nature, to live outside in caves, to have sex, run free, eat rabbits. He does none of those things. He exists now to keep me company and move my sheep around the pasture and to be photographed. Is he living the natural life he was meant to live? What is sheep-herding with dogs, but another "stupid trick" to entertain us on television and country fairs and trips to Ireland? And what of the sheep, is it their natural fate to be chased around by dogs so that human beings can hang blue ribbons on their walls?
I suppose they will come after the border collies one day, but to understand the carriage horses and the elephants in the circus, one has to understand that the elephant and the border collie – and the cat sleeping in our lap, and the pig in the pasture – are doing the very same thing.
We tolerate the one because we love it, we ban the other because it is far away and we believe everything we wish and need to believe and we know nothing about it ourselves.
Am I cruel and immoral for permitting Red to live a life that gives me pleasure, that entertains and uplifts me every day? I love Red and my life with him. And I love herding sheep, it greatly entertains and grounds me, I bet Judy loves to see the photos. And I imagine Red is living a better and longer and safer life than his ancestors in nature, safer, healthier and much longer. Much like the elephants and the carriage horses. Why is this an adorably wonderful thing for him, but not for the elephants in the circus, or the carriage horses?
Why is it so much easier to wag our righteous fingers at other people while never taking responsibility for ourselves and what we have done to animals and their natural world? We know animals only through the prism of their occasional abuse – are we forgetting that American dogs lead the best lives of any animal on the earth? – because that makes us feel good, yet we sit on our hands and look away while the world they lived in is destroyed bit by bit every day and our political leaders hide their heads in the mud.
Are the people who love to ride horses and cuddle puppies abusive because they are allowing animals to entertain them, rather than leaving them to take their chances in the mythical wild, where they die young of disease, exposure, from predators and starvation?
Like most Americans, Judy knows nothing about horses or elephants. Our children never go outdoors alone, they spend their lives behind screens, they will know even less than we do about the natural world. They desperately need to see elephants in a circus, and carriage horses in Central Park, and ponies in farmer's markets. These may be the only animals who are not pets that they ever see.
We live in a world utterly disconnected from nature and animals, yet the more ignorant and distant we are, the more willing we seem to be to tell other people what to do with animals and how they ought to live. Our only idea for animals is to stop often fantasized notions of abuse and trash their few remaining worlds, and then leave them to the fates. And we know what happens to animals left to the mercy of human experience, they vanish from the world. Judy does not want to talk about that, it makes black and white a bit gray.
She is certain she knows where the elephants ought to go, but does not know that the place she thinks they ought to go does not exist any longer. Thus, she is not a person who ought to be deciding their future or making moral judgements about the people who own, work and care for them. That is the malignancy that is sadly rotting the soul of the animal rights movement.
I wanted to tell Judy that In the past month, I've received a score of messages from animal trainers and vets and handlers in the circus, from people who have lived and worked with elephants all of their lives and they paint a very different picture than the one we saw in those videos and interviews and press releases. There are at least two sides to every story, and theirs has never been told.
They offer a very different testimony than the one that comes from the videos on YouTube of elephants being mistreated, the one all of us have seen, the one that has shaped the fate of the Asian elephants. The video is the closest experience most of the righteous have ever come to an elephant's life. The story of the elephant handlers is one I have rarely heard, because no one bothered to listen to it.
Abuse is a crime in every state in the country, but if the people driving the elephants from the circus cannot see beyond it, then the domesticated animals of the world who have brought so much entertainment, joy, work and meaning to human lives, are truly doomed. We are destroying their shrinking worlds once more, orphaning them and leaving them to almost certain death and trauma, and once again patting ourselves on the back for having done it. There is a space in between helping animals and banning them when they are mistreated.
There is another path, a middle way: improve their lives, punish their abusers, keep them in our world. Treating animals and people with respect. That is the path of true animal lovers. Finding humane ways to keep them among us, rather than simple-minded solutions that take them away from us.
"I began working with elephants in 1980," wrote Lynn in a touching and very beautiful message last week. "They have so much to teach us if only we would listen. I worked with and for elephants in the circus. I am so fortunate to have been able to do so and am greatly saddened that others will never have the opportunity."
Elephant handlers, she says, have been criticized for years, mostly because a few awful people get all of the attention. It takes it's toll, she said. "All I can say nowadays is, "pick up a shovel. Shovel shit for a year. Then maybe I'll talk elephants with you. As cities outlaw the bullhook, she wrote, "I've begun to realize they don't deserve to have elephants in their lives. Elephants are unlike any animal out there. The bull hook is only a tool. It has been demonized by the animal worshipers. Don't fall for it. Elephants in sanctuaries, worked in protected contact, will forever be behind bars. Circus elephants, worked free of contact with a bull hook, can be walked anywhere, loaded easily and turned loose to go where they care to."
Another perspective, one I didn't see expressed even once in all of the rejoicing over Ringling Bros. decision to get rid of their elephants over the next three years. I told Lynn she would never see the people who are happy about the elephants losing their work shoveling shit anywhere. For the righteous, Facebook is their bull hook, computers their tool, anonymous and furious blogs and videos their research and experience.
Jamie has been traveling with the circus for years, he cried for hours when he heard the elephants would be leaving. He has come to love their gentleness and their love of people and attention. They are much loved in the circus, he said, after every performance the trainers and handlers – and children from the audience – gather in their tent to give them hay and apples. He often sleeps next to them at night, curled up under their big feet in a bale of hay. "It's horrible that they will be almost surely destroyed," he said,"there is nowhere for them to go, and they are so much loved here. And these people think they are helping them? What a world."
So we will soon be saying goodbye to the elephants, the horses, the ponies in market, the animals on the farms too dangerous to keep, they will live for us and our children only on YouTube, we will destroy their last remaining world and congratulate ourselves on our virtue. The world will not be a better place without them, we have once again diminished our Mother, the earth, and her children.
I asked July once more if she had given any though to where the animals might go.
"They will live in the wild," she said, "as they were meant to."