Saturday, September 3, 2011

One Lucky Elephant [2010]

MPAA (unrated)  Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert’s review

One Lucky Elephant (directed by Lisa Leeman and written by Cristina Colissimo) is a documentary ten years in the making about circus producer David Balding’s 10 year quest to find a permanent home for Flora, an african elephant who he had adopted when she was an infant.  He had made her the star attraction of his circus, and who at 18 years of age was beginning to show signs (by occasional acting-out/aggressiveness) that she was done with being in the circus.  And so he began to look for place for her to stay, preferably among other elephants, and preferably with a lot of space available.  After trying several zoos and other sanctuaries, he settled on an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee at a cost of eventually being banned from visiting Flora after leaving her there.

The movie raises all kinds of questions about human-animal relationships, and how to understand the relationship between David and Flora.  Was it fundamentally affectionate or was it fundamentally abusive? 

If not for David, Flora could have been dead, left as an orphan to die, or could have been “adopted” by a far more abusive owner.  On the other hand, she could have perhaps been placed immediately into an elephant sanctuary around other elephants (either in Africa or in the United States or another Western country). 

Then to train Flora for the circus, she had to be “broken” at a relatively young age.  This was done in a way that one “breaks” a young horse, and few people would see the “breaking” of a young horse to be fundamentally evil.  All kinds of horse-owners love their horses and are convinced that their horses fundamentally like them.  Even dogs are “trained” when young in order to serve as better pets and most mature to be happy as pie.  Further, Asian countries have used (trained) elephants for labor and even warfare for millennia.  So while the documentary this “breaking” of Flora as a young elephant to perhaps have been fundamentally abusive, I honestly don’t know.

Finally, it is clear that elephants are intelligent.  Would it not be worth it for the sake of better understanding animals (and life forms of all kinds) to find ways to communicate with them? 

Any number of methods could be employed I suppose, from observing plant/animal behavior in the wild, to placing electrodes on test subjects and measuring physiological response to various stimuli (from benign to harmful), to (as has been done in primate studies) teaching the animals a sign language so that we could communicate with them and they with us.   

Non-invasiveness, and seeking to minimize pain/harm to the test subject (be it a plant, dog, chimp or an elephant) would seem to be a key criterion in ethically studying them. With regard to higher animals, since young primates have been taught sign-language, perhaps a sign language of sorts could be taught to elephants as well.  (One thinks of the horse, Mr Ed, who would could pound his hooves to count out numbers...). 

But since ‘breaking” of young horses has been something that has been done for millennia without any clear indication that this was fundamentally harmful to the horse (and has presumably been done with elephants in several Asian countries for millennia as well), I would not dwell on this being necessarily or irredeemably evil.  Even (human) children are “raised’ (disciplined at times to be civilized) so that they can function effectively in society.  HOW an animal is “broken” could be a fair issue, but that it is “broken” in order to become open to study and communication with us ought not to be necessarily seen as wrong.

Anyway, this movie certainly invites one to ask a lot of questions about our relationships with the other plants and animals which we share this world, and how to honestly label our relationships with them.

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