With eyes misting and a heart totally overwhelmed with sadness and inefficacy, I watched Amy Schatz’s HBO documentary “An Apology to Elephants”, narrated by Lily Tomlin.
By the end of the film, the mist turned to full-blown tears, and I began to quietly sob, uncontrollably.
Years ago, I learned that these beautiful, intelligent pachyderms were highly social creatures, which valued community and experienced grief in profound ways; so the documentary’s portrayal of them as the largest mammals on land, with possibly the largest hearts on earth, really didn’t come as any surprise to me.
How I instinctively knew, as a child, that something wasn’t quite right when I saw circus elephants performing, I’ll never know; but I knew then what they’ve documented now – elephants don’t belong in captivity and shouldn’t be “paraded down main street” for all to observe; and then displayed as ballet-performing Dumbo’s, exhibiting “tricks” learned via negative (more often than not, abusive) reinforcement.
As I watched the documentary’s presentation of these mistreated, caged, chained creatures, rhythmically swaying back and forth; I couldn’t help but remember two scenes from my past – one involving an older, learning disabled cousin, who was institutionalized for her learning disabilities; and another scene involving an older friend of mine, who was placed in elder care when she broke her hip and could no longer tend to her basic needs.
Both incidences traumatized me.
Both scenes haunt me to this day.
And all three scenes – the elephant, my cousin and my older friend – permeate my very being to its core.
In the 50’s and 60’s, society didn’t really understand people and their learning differences. They just knew that if you couldn’t learn the way most kids learned, that you needed to be schlepped to some special institution with other kids that had similar problems.
God forbid, you mainstreamed these “special kids” with “normal kids” back then – wasn’t an acceptable form of treatment for retarded people in the 50’s and 60’s. It was better to place them in environmentally cold institutions – void of consistent human interaction and stimulation, and let them “rock themselves back and forth” for their enjoyment and education.
After all, as long as they were fed, clothed and showered on a semi-regular basis, and you kept them hid from society, the institution met their legal requirements; they (begrudgingly) satisfied most parents and guardians who placed them in their care, and society didn’t have to face the dilemma of what to do with such oddities.
As a child, I was treated to a rare outing to see my learning challenged cousin; and as the older cousins and adults were allowed visitation privileges with her; I, along with another younger cousin, was relegated to watching her rhythmically rock back and forth and wave to us from an upstairs front window; while we innocently waved back to her from the front lawn below.
The sadness and powerlessness that I felt then, I felt, once again; when discovering how my older friend was hosed down, in the shower stall, at the elder care facility years ago.
Only this time, I was an adult….a young adult, but an adult with a voice, so I was able to voice my concern and displeasure with my friend’s treatment to the appropriate authorities.
I was never able to intervene on my cousin’s behalf before she died, and for that I am so sorry – so very, very sorry.
But I never forgot her and never forgot the quiet rage that I felt as she was paraded in front of that spotted, dirty window and blankly stared at us; while she slowly and dutifully waved her hand back and forth.
I don’t know why I became a Special Ed. Teacher.
I haven’t a clue.
I would like to think that somehow my cousin influenced me from above and that my years advocating and fighting for learning challenged kids somehow had something to do with Karen.
But I honestly can’t say.
I truly don’t know.
Would be nice to think that I dedicated my teaching career to her memory.
Would certainly make for a heartfelt story.
But that’s not the truth.
The truth is – I don’t know.
What I do know, is that, like Lily Tomlin, Jane Alexander, Amy Schatz; and a host of other dedicated, caring individuals that love elephants; I can’t idly sit here and not speak out against something so wrong and vile, that it makes my stomach churn and heart weep.
As a society, we cannot continue to patronize businesses and shows that allow for the ongoing abuse and inappropriate exhibition of such unique, important creatures, before we hasten their extinction and do irreparable harm to a species that is so important to our global ecology and environment.
They don’t have a voice or a choice, when killed for their husks or captured for our entertainment pleasure, but you and I do. The least that we can do (the very least) is to not patronize businesses that continue to benefit from the exploitation of these beautiful, loving creatures.
Or live with the fact that we assisted in their early demise…
That’s just my opinion, looking at life from my shoes.