I love elephants. I think they are undoubtedly the coolest animals. They are so large and graceful and beautiful that it breaks my heart to think that these noble, intelligent beasts can be mistreated. I was quite dismayed by an article in the Herald Sun on Saturday about the last circus elephant in Australia, 55 year old Saigon, and how she is living with the Perry Bros. Circus, travelling around Australia with them but unable to perform due to her age but unable to fully retire due also to her age and that there is nowhere in Australia for old circus elephants to retire to. It made me think not just about Saigon but also about another two of Melbourne’s famous elephants, Queenie, who was such a popular attraction at Melbourne Zoo in the first half of the 20th Century, and Dokoon’s baby, who was born at Melbourne Zoo just over a week ago. I wonder if life has been that much different for Queenie as it has been for Saigon and how much different it will be for the little elephant.
Queenie was the Melbourne Zoo’s main attraction for forty years from the beginning of the last century. She was captured in India and brought to Australia and from 1905 until 1944 she would give up to 500 rides a day around the zoo to the children who visited her. In 1944 she was put down after she crushed her trainer Wilfred Lawson to death. According to some witnesses Queenie may have retaliated to the mistreatment that she had sustained from Lawson over the years. “My dad believed it was deliberate, because Mr Lawson was pretty rough with her.” says Joyce Hamilton, whose father Adolphus Stanley, had looked after Queenie for a month at the time while her regular keeper, Lawson was on holidays. Mrs. Hamilton told The Age that Lawson hit the elephant with a piece of wood behind the ears when she did not move fast enough and that she believed that Queenie cracked when Lawson returned as her keeper after a month of her father’s care.
Queenie’s story has been wonderfully retold by Corinne Fenton in her brilliant picture book Queenie: One Elephant’s Story.
As was reported in the Herald Sun, Saigon is a 55 year old elephant with Perry Bros. Circus. She is Australia’s last circus elephant after the death of her Mynyak last month. At 55 she is too old to perform with the circus anymore but she travels with the circus because there is nowhere for her to retire to. Perry Bros. spokesperson Lorraine Maynard said that if a zoo took Saigon she would not be able to establish herself with the existing herds and would be killed. While I don’t believe this for a second I do wonder why Melbourne Zoo went to the trouble of importing three much younger female elephants a few years ago and did not volunteer to take in Saigon or Mynyak so they could retire in peace. (It would not have anything to do with the fact that Saigon is too old to breed would it?!)
On the other hand Saigon was born in captivity and has been with Perry Bros. for 50 years. The circus is the only family she has ever known and it would not be right to take her away from the people whom she lives with and loves. It does not seem that she is being abused or forced to do anything against her will, and she is not malnourished.
Just on a couple of weeks ago Melbourne Zoo welcomed a new resident when Dokoon the elephant gave birth to a baby girl. Unlike Queenie and Saigon Dokoon’s bundle of joy won’t have to endure a lifetime of work, or will she? We have seen that the Melbourne Zoo elephants perform mini shows every day as well as other unnatural things like painting. Sure their shows are not the big extravaganzas that Saigon used to perform and the elephants no longer have to carry snot nosed brats around the zoo on their backs, but they do not do these things in the wild either. In the wild elephants spend all their time roaming the jungles and rainforests looking for food, not trying to become the next Picasso. Melbourne Zoo’s elephant enclosure is very small, especially when compared to the vast areas of the elephant’s natural habitat. I often wonder if the elephant enclosure is big enough for five (now six) elephants.
As for animal cruelty, mum Dokoon has allegedly experienced that first hand in her time at Melbourne Zoo. According to various news agencies, a couple of years ago there were allegations that a trainer, Pat Flora, had stabbed Dokoon a dozen times because he feared being injured as she was backing into him. Flora was present conforting Dokoon as she gave birth, as was Dr. Helen McCracken who was also painted in a very unflattering light in the above article from The Age that I linked to, thanks to some of the remarks that she made. For those of you who are too lazy to click on The Age link that I have provided former zoo strategic planner David Hancocks said “There are essentially two ways to treat an elephant — by dominating and controlling it, which creates stress and potential danger, or by only positive reinforcement and the creation of an environment of mutual trust… Pat Flora is definitely a staunch advocate of the former method.” I wonder how different this really is the way that Mr. Lawson allegedly had treated Queenie all those years ago?!
Of course this is the dilemma that I face. I want to visit the little one when she goes on display in the next couple of weeks but I am opposed to the idea of zoos altogether. They do play an important role in helping to breed endangered animals (although Asian elephants are not endangered, despite what Melbourne Zoo tells us), but I don’t want the only place these animals can be viewed to be in a zoo. I also think that elephants especially should have enough room to roam around in and I don’t think that their cramped quarters at Melbourne Zoo is near enough.