HBO is offering “An Apology to Elephants.” That’s the name of a documentary premiering on Earth Day – April 22 – at 7 p.m. The film looks at how humans have mistreated elephants: captured, crated to zoos and circuses (where they are roped and prodded with sharp metal “bull hooks” to force them to do tricks), killed by poachers for their tusks. In one tragic incident, Topsy, an elephant kept at Coney Island crushed a man to death—and then was electrocuted by Thomas Alva Edison to demonstrate the dangers of AC electricity. The narrator for the film is the actress Lily Tomlin, who spoke with National Geographic about her love for elephants: “they are among my favorite earthlings.”
You are an elephant activist.
Five years ago I got involved with elephants here in Los Angeles. There was a bull elephant at the zoo that was living a pretty stringent and brutal life. So I got involved because we were trying to free Billy from the L.A. Zoo. I had read a lot about elephants. I had feelings that elephants shouldn’t be in zoos. Probably no animals should, but least of all the big ones, and the elephant is the biggest. What the elephant endures living in captivity became a symbol to me—a very obvious symbol—of all the suffering we perpetrate.
Do you remember the first time you saw an elephant?
I do. In Detroit at the zoo. It was the Hall of the Elephants. There was only one elephant. I remember he or she was up in a big cage in a dank kind of cement building. I went up some stairs. The elephant was up there at the top. The little set of stairs made the elephant seem bigger and more majestic and yet kind of meager in that cage, in that dank, dark environment. I think it was more scary than enticing, probably because the elephant was indoors in this really confined, strange environment. I never loved zoos much as a kid. I liked the monkeys; kids always like the monkeys, I guess; they’re doing monkey antics. But big cats walking up and down in a cage—it’s pretty grim,
The documentary makes the point that some zoos, like the Oakland Zoo, have created big spaces for elephants to roam. Does that make you feel less anti-zoo?
Elephants should not be in captivity. There’s not enough room no matter what you say. But a zoo can be made better. A circus cannot, because they have to really dominate an elephant to teach them to stand on their head, ride a bicycle.
And now elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory.
All you can say to people is don’t buy ivory, don’t buy ivory objects, and lobby or sign petitions. And don’t go to zoos or circuses either, it just fosters bringing more elephants [into captivity].
What would your little girl character Edith Ann say about elephants?
We did some animated Edith Ann’s and we never got this one animated: Edith reads about elephants and what good mothers they are. And she wishes her mother was an elephant—Edith would be a lot happier, the elephant mother would take better care of her, be kinder. Then she imagines an elephant for a mother. They go to the supermarket, her mother knocks shelves over. They can’t get through the aisles, go out to the mall, she’s ruining stuff and causing havoc everywhere. So Edith Ann gets over [her wish for an elephant mother.] Maybe we’ll get to do it some day.
(Editor’s note: To read about the tragic slaughter of elephants for their tusks, see the National Geographic cover story from October 2012.)