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Tillie, Elephants and the Zoo


She had begun her life of captivity known as Chocolate. But unlike the dessert, which denotes images of sweetness and experiences of delight, this elephant could be anything but. She did, in fact, resemble the food’s more controversial side – its stimulant side. For Chocolate was high-sprinted, independently-minded, and resistant. If somebody pushed her, she would push right back. If somebody hit her with a bull-hook, she would make that person regret ever doing so. This was one elephant not to be underestimated or messed with. In the end, Chocolate would be kicked out of two zoos for misbehavior and be placed in a specialized facility. 

Born in Southeastern Asia, Chocolate was first brought to Europe in 1965. Her new home was to be the regional zoo in Kolmarden, Sweden. It was, most would say, an odd place for an elephant to live. Located on Lake Mälaren, this park sat less than 100 miles from the Baltic Sea. Here, winters could last four to five months. The skies would remain overcast, as the sun kept hidden behind the clouds. The temperatures during this season rarely rose beyond the freezing mark. All of this meant that the elephants had to spend nearly half of the year indoors, living in small, cramped quarters. If they did venture outside for any extended period, they were exposed to the cold, damp air. This could easily get into their lungs, joints, and feet making the animals sick, arthritic, and diseased. Overall, this type of climate is horrible for elephants. They do not get to walk or even get much of a good stretch for months at a time. There is no stimulation. There is no sunlight. These conditions lead to depression and despair. This was especially the situation for Maggie, an elephant from the state zoo in Alaska.

In 1983, this South African arrived to the city of Anchorage. She was the sole survivor of a family that had been culled only months earlier, and the event must have been traumatizing. At the zoo, there was one other pachyderm, Annabelle, who had been there alone for the past 17 years. She would die of a foot infection in 1997. Maggie, in turn, spent the next decade by herself. Isolation is very hard on female elephants. They are highly social creatures and need each other for companionship. In Africa or Asia, their families are extended to include a matriarch, six to twenty related females, and an assortment of calves. Even the dead are long remembered in their society. Furthermore, elephants enjoy interacting with fellow animals. It is odd how we tend to think of other species as being segregated or divorced from those around them. But this is simply not the case. They, like humans, need to create and develop these kinds of holistic relationships. Animals have a culture all to their own.

Maggie, unfortunately, had none of this. In fact, the best that the Alaskan Zoo could come up with to ease her discomfort was a giant treadmill. On this $100,000 machine, the elephant could exercise her way to good physical and mental health. Ironically, this was not a new idea. The 18th-century policy wonk, Jeremy Bentham, advocated just such a device in his essay on the Panopticon. Here, the Queen’s elephants would be put to work: spending eighteen out of twenty-four hours a day treading a wheel. Not only would this project be advantageous for the animals, but it would also produce mechanical power and revenue for the mill’s owner. Maggie, however, was not so convinced, and she refused to ever use her machine. In 2007, under growing pressure by citizen groups, park administrators agreed to send Maggie to the PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) Sanctuary in Galt, California. Our elephant Chocolate could only have imagined such joys.

For fifteen years, she remained at her Swedish zoo – enduring many frigid winters and appreciating, the best that a tropical animal could, the mild Scandinavian summers. She watched as Kolmarden became the country’s leading zoological institution, a feat which Chocolate herself played not small part in accomplishing. Yet, behind the scenes, the situation was not so rosy. The elephant was maturing and becoming more self-aware. She would no longer acquiesce to any order or demand. Her attitude had begun to shift from ‘to go along, to get along’ to open defiance. It would come to a point where she became so difficult that the zoo could no longer handle her safely. She was simply too aggressive and too dangerous. Chocolate had already injured several keepers, and officials knew that it was just a matter of time before she killed someone. Kolmarden threw up its hands. Chocolate had won the battle of wills.

By 1980, the elephant had been sold and shipped off to the States. Her new home was the more temperate Tampa, Florida. For a while, the association between Chocolate and the zoo remained amicable. Perhaps it was the return to the heat and humidity which did the trick. This climate change put the elephant at ease. Or maybe it took awhile for Chocolate to figure out that, when the Tampa handlers screamed out “Tillie,” they were referring, not to another elephant, but to her. Apparently, she had a new name. In either case, years went by. Tillie became a mother. The zoo filled its pockets with money made from her and her calf’s presence. It made cash on the side by featuring the elephant in local television commercials. In time, though, Tillie became less tolerant of this life.

Troubles first flared in June of 1993. Tillie and another pachyderm were being led on their daily walk, when, suddenly, they sprinted away from their handler. Tillie plowed over a gate, and, together, the two wandered outside of the grounds. Elephants remain, despite all of the efforts by zoological parks, opposed to sedentary life. Whether in Asia or Africa, these animals will cover many miles per day. Their typical range can be anywhere from 9 to 31 square miles. And this is not merely about finding food or water. Elephants love to walk and to roam on their own accord. They enjoy being constantly on the go, seeing new sights, and interacting with fellow creatures. They are social travelers. In zoos, indoor facilities are measured in feet (not miles), and outdoor sites might, at most, reach 2 or 3 acres. Indeed, this incidence in Tampa was not the first occasion, or the last, that an elephant or two escaped from a zoo.

A decade previous, for example, Misty fled her Irvine, California facility. Running over her trainer and busting through a security fence, she strolled by a nearby swap-meet, caused a traffic-jam on a freeway, and avoided capture for over three hours. In 1997, Cally and Tonya took off from a Maine zoo. A gate was either left open by accident or it was opened by the elephants themselves – officials could not determine which. Nevertheless, the pair used this opportunity to do some exploring. Tonya was the first to be caught. But Cally was nowhere to be found. She had plain disappeared. It was not until hours later that employees stumbled upon her in a wooden area. Cally was in the process of taking a much deserved mud-bath – a pleasure that the elephant never had in captivity. As for Tillie and her partner, they would also be located and brought back to their enclosure. Yet this was just a foreshadowing of events to come.  

One early July day, while Tillie was in the middle of a training exercise, she paused and refused to continue. When pushed by her handler, she pushed back and sent the woman tumbling into an adjacent pool of water. There was no doubt that this was an intentional act, and the trainer, while not hurt physically, was shaken emotionally. For their part, zoo administrators chose to view this action not as a second warning by the elephant but rather as an isolated incidence. At the very least, they believed, it was Tillie having some fun at the expense of another. At most, it was normal interplay between a handler and an animal – each wanting to have dominance over the other.

Significantly, zoos and circuses will on occasion admit to this fact: that the relations between themselves and their elephants are primarily antagonistic, coercive, and, often, violent. This is a question of domination and resistance; the answer of which is played out every day behind the doors of these institutions. In other words, we can think of these relations as a dynamic, whose outcomes are determined through a process of negotiation. On the one side, there are the zoos and circuses. They attempt to impose control by using everything from repetitive action, to physical abuse, to gastronomic bribes, to verbal intimidation: the goal of which is to create obedience, servility, and profitability among the captive animals. Theirs is a management of exploitation. On the other side of the equation are the elephants. They seek to survive this predicament, and, if possible, obtain some influence over it. Theirs is a struggle against exploitation, and it can take many forms: ignoring commands, slowing down, refusing to work without adequate food and water, taking unofficial breaks, breaking equipment, damaging enclosures, fighting back, or escaping. Much of the time, it is the institutions who ultimately win out in these negotiations. But, occasionally, the elephants do succeed in their quest. The victory may be ephemeral: extra hay or carrots. It could be partial: long-term change in training techniques. Or it might be historic: release to a sanctuary. In the case of Tillie and her latest outburst, the Tampa zoo quickly sought to regain dominance. The elephant was taken to “the privacy of the barn,” chained, and disciplined. After this was complete, Tillie was put through a set of commands to see if she would obey. She did and was placed back on display. The relative calm, however, did not last long.

During a final day in July, as Tillie was being led towards the barn, she was told to pause and to hold “steady.” The elephant, instead, marched directly towards the trainer – the same woman who had been pushed down only weeks before. The command, “move over,” was given and cued with a strike of a bull-hook. The elephant responded with some slaps and kicks of her own. When the handler tried to flee the scene, Tillie pulled the woman back for more punishment. There was an assistant on hand, who tugged on and beat the elephant. But Tillie ignored the person and the pain. She would not stop kicking until the target of her rage was dead.

Tillie’s resistance followed a pattern of many zoo elephants: trouble comes in stages. There was, for instance, JoJo at the Lion Country Safari in West Palm Beach, Florida. She charged her keeper twice in the same year. The third time, in March of 1990, she gored the man – crushing five ribs, causing liver damage, and requiring a transfusion of 23 pints of blood. “I told her to back up,” the trainer later told a newspaper, “and I saw it come into her eyes.” This was the look of anger, and it was not to be forgotten. Then there was Tamba at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon. She slammed her handler against a wall in 1991. Administrators, though, dismissed this as an accident. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ was their attitude. Seven months later, Tamba fractured the man’s skull. After this, the press demanded a better answer. A park curator gave them one. Tamba, the official stated plainly, “just didn’t like him.” Finally, there was the case of Misha at Six Flags in Vallejo, California. She “took advantage” an employee in 2001 by shoving the unsuspecting person into a bush. A year afterwards, she tried to hit another with her trunk. Misha missed but the message was sent. Unfortunately, no one at the park was paying attention. In 2004, she gored a third in the abdomen. The tusks, a fireman explained in graphic fashion, went “all the way through.”

But to return to Tillie, she was sold immediately after the killing. It was her third strike, and she was, quite literally, out of the Tampa zoo. As with her previous owner in Sweden, this park also came to realize that it could no longer hold nor control the elephant. Tillie would kill again and officials knew it. Her message, it seems, had been received. In actuality, if it had been only two decades earlier, Tillie would have been executed – as this was, for over a century, standard procedure for habitual offenders. Resist beyond a certain point, and you would be put to death. Yet, with the reburgeoning of the animal rights movement in the 1970s, these institutions no longer operated with impunity, and this method of punishment had become all but unacceptable. Hence, the Tampa Zoo ended up placing the elephant in a “better equipped” facility: the Two Tails Ranch.

Opened in 1984 and located in Williston, Florida, Two Tails is a working ranch with a broad mission. First, in partnership with Ringling Brothers, it serves as a breeding program for the reproduction of circus elephants. As we discussed in an earlier essay, these “conservation” centers were started in response to stricter laws and regulations regarding the exportation of elephants from foreign countries. Zoos and circuses simply needed a new, more reliable source of labor. Second, the ranch is a training facility. In fact, its current owner and operator is Patricia Zerbini – one of the foremost pachyderm trainers in the world. If anyone could keep Tillie in line, it would be her. Finally, Two Tails is home to a number of older elephants. But this is no retirement community. Under the guise of “education,” these animals are used to entertain visitors, furnish rides, pose for photographs, and give demonstrations and clinics. Moreover, they are required to travel and perform at fairs, exhibitions, and special events. For many elephants, work is something that is never done.

In 2000, we would hear from Tillie again, but the news was not so encouraging. She had become the subject of a USDA investigation. The federal bureau discovered that the elephant was ill and suffering. Evidently, she had contracted tuberculosis and was receiving no veterinary care for the disease. Tillie remains at the ranch.

JASON HRIBAL can be reached at: jasonchribal@yahoo.com




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