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How a Few Elephants Turned the Zoo Industry Upside Down
Moja Has Mojo
by JASON HRIBAL

Newspapers referred to her simply as “M.”  Was this a key anonymous source?  An unknown serial killer? Or, maybe, a protected crime victim? In actuality, the answer was none of the above. M. was an elephant, who lived at the Pittsburgh Zoo. An eight-year resident, she had just days earlier attacked a handler. Yet, when questioned by the local media, representatives for the park – who on normal occasions are quite verbose if not braggart when discussing their operations – became strangely tight-lipped and would provide only the first initial of the involved animal. Why all of this mystery?

M. stood for Moja. She was born at the San Diego Zoo in May of 1982. Her mother was Wankie, a 23 year old who had spent most of her life in Southern California. It was her first calf, and the birth was considered a triumph. For Moja was a rarity, one of the few African elephants to have been bred successfully in captivity. The zoological profession could not have been more pleased, and it touted the news far and wide. But for Wankie and her calf, the celebration was to be short-lived – as the latter was shipped in October of the following year to the city zoo in Tacoma, Washington. If some readers are thinking that this does not sound like much time for a mother and daughter to spend together, they would be most correct in doing so. Elephants, especially, are affected by such an abrupt separation.  

In pachyderm society, family is everything. Females, for instance, are never alone. Daughters will spend their entire lives with their mothers. These bonds are almost unbreakable, and extend beyond the material world and into the spiritual. Elephants are known to have their own graveyards and complex rituals regarding the treatment of the dead. Visits are made often to these places, and the bones of relatives are touched, caressed, and even carried around. As for male elephants, the maternal bond is equally as strong for the first segment of their lives. But, upon reaching adolescence, males become more independent and begin to venture out from the herd for extending periods of time. Eventually, they never come back and remain solitary – although maintaining friendships with other males is important.  Zoos and circuses, however, do not recognize or value the significance of these relations: familial or otherwise. The majority of calves are removed from their mothers by the age of two, if not sooner.

Wankie, for her part, never saw her calf again. She died in 2005, somewhere in the middle of Nebraska on Interstate 80. The Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo, who then owned the elephant, had sold her to Salt Lake City. Evidently, Chicago’s two other elephants, Tatima and Peaches, had just died of mycobacteriosis (a disease causing lameness). Wankie was also infected and dying. Local citizen groups wanted her taken to the sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Park officials, however, denied the request. Instead, they sent Wankie on a 1400 mile trip in the back of an unheated semi-trailer. With temperatures dipping below freezing and attendants bickering about whether or not to place a tarp over her crate, Wankie collapsed. She did not get up. Was Moja in her final thoughts?

Back at the Tacoma Point Defiance Zoo, Moja stayed until her sixth birthday when she was sold to a private contractor. Thus began her life in the circus industry. Interestingly, she spent at least one season working alongside Tyke and Elaine for Circus International. She was, in fact, backstage for the infamous 1994 Honolulu performance, wherein Tyke killed her trainer, escaped into the city streets, and was shot to death by police. That trainer was none other than Moja’s current owner: Allen Campbell. Following the incident, the Pittsburgh Zoo stepped forward and offered to purchase the performer. The proposal was accepted, and Moja was shipped to Pennsylvania. 

We would not hear from Moja again until the new millennium. The first time was in late 2000. Moja had given birth to a calf eleven months previous, and baby Victoria, as she was named, was preparing to observe her birthday. She would be the first US-born African elephant to survive beyond the age of one since 1985. The next time Moja made the news was in November of 2002. She and Victoria were being led on an early morning walk, when the pair decided to make an unscheduled stop outside of a zoo café. Their handlers did not approve, for any pauses or alterations in the routine were not allowed. Hence, one of them commanded with a raised voice and brandished bull-hook that the two elephants had better move along. Moja and Victoria refused. At some point in the escalating argument, the mother had enough. She knocked the handler down and crushed him. She and her calf then walked away from the scene. Panicking, the zoo alerted city police. Officers arrived and encircled the park, and the Special Weapons and Tactics team fortified the main entrance. In the end, though, this show of force was not needed – as Moja and Victoria were soon boxed in by an assembly of vans and trucks and led back to their enclosure.

The zoo seemed to be at a loss about the attack. Such events, it claimed, were “relatively rare” and “largely unexplained.” The head of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s elephant advisory committee added, “I can’t say what would cause the elephant in Pittsburgh to do what it did. It’s very unlike females to behave like that.” One park administrator even pointed out that M. was the zoo’s most docile elephant and a model of subordinate behavior. “She’s never threatened anybody. She’s never postured to anybody.” This last statement, however, was almost immediately proven to be false – as a confidential informant leaked out new information to the press. Ten months previous, M. had injured another trainer during a similar morning walk.

When confronted about the apparent lie, the zoo confirmed that such an incident did occur but that it was “nonaggressive.” M., a spokeswoman clarified, got into a wrestling match with another elephant, and her trainer was knocked over during the fight. This was inadvertent, and the man suffered nothing more than a bruised leg. Was the zoo finally telling the truth? No. For the melee not only left the employee with a severe leg injury and collapsed lung, but this former elephant trainer for the Ringling Brothers Circus was unable to work for three months. Moreover, when he did return to the job, he refused to ever handle another elephant again. The accident was, in his mind, no accident. It did not matter what the zoo said. He knew differently. Moja had injured him on purpose, and the smart move was to avoid all future contact with these animals. Precedent, it seems, was on his side.

Consider, for instance, the case of Shanti at the Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago. In February of 1994, this three-year old, captive-born elephant was being moved out of her enclosure when she and her handler both slipped simultaneously on a slick surface. Shanti’s leg fell upon the trainer and the woman received some moderate trauma. “At no time,” though, “did the animal appear to be aggressive towards the keeper.” This was an unfortunate accident. Well, that was Brookfield’s story and officials stuck to it. But, according to a later lawsuit, events transpired in a far different manner. The young elephant, it was described, had snapped her chains and the trainer was trying to re-secure them. When the women slipped to the ground, she was deliberately stepped on and gored. She suffered several broken ribs, a broken sternum, a collapsed lung, and a deep puncture wound. The zoo, not without retort, argued that these injuries were caused, not by Shanti, but by a pair of pliers that the woman was carrying in her back pocket at the time. The handler, nonetheless, won the lawsuit and affirmed to the press that Shanti was quite the “unruly” elephant. Brookfield evidently came to the same conclusion, as Shanti was sold the following year to a private contractor.

Then there was the case of Alice and Cha Cha at the San Diego Zoo. In 1991, a keeper was killed at the park when struck in the head by an elephant. Zoo biologists quickly determined that a fight had broken out between two elephants, Alice and Cha Cha, and this woman had somehow gotten in the way. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and her death, while tragic, was accidental. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, however, would perform its own investigation. It found out that the experienced handler was actually in the process of training one of the elephants when another approached and struck her. Was this a mistake? Was Alice trying to hit Cha Cha but missed the target? Perhaps a related incident, one which occurred the same year at the Houston Zoological Garden, could provide a clue. Two pachyderms, Indu and Methai, had engaged in a tussle when a handler stepped in and yelled at the pair to stop. Indu turned around and, “like a bolt of lighting,” charged. She slammed the man into a fence and proceeded to butt him repeatedly with her head. The zoo, after the fact, minced no words. Indu, “depressed and aggressive since watching her newborn calf die two months ago,” had assaulted the man. Indeed, OSHA came to the same conclusion about the incident in San Diego: “animal trainer killed when attacked by elephant.”

But to return to Moja and her fate, she was put into isolation immediately following the attack and kept there until further notice. Pittsburg, like other zoos facing similar circumstances, needed to make a choice. Would it transfer Moja to another institution? Would it sell her to a contractor? Would it place her in a sanctuary? Or would it take a chance and keep her? Ultimately, Pittsburg decided on the latter: the zoo would keep the elephant. Its reasoning was coldly straightforward. “This is,” a spokeswoman explained, “a breeding female African elephant. This is an endangered species.” Moja had already given birth to one calf (who survived), and she might give birth to another (and she did exactly that one week ago). Yet, nagging in the back of their minds, park administrators still had several unresolved problems – all of them involving their elephant and her recalcitrant behavior. As one employee summarized, “she may have learned that she can push a human out of her way, and might do so again when irritated.” So what was the zoo’s solution? The answer lay in protected contact.

Known as PC for short, protected contact is a hands-off system of management. Its mission is to keep a physical barrier between the trainer and the elephant at all times. This not only prevents direct contact between the two parties but also lessens the chance of attack and injury. Walls, fences, wire, and bars – not bull hooks and sticks – provide the means of protection under this system. Significantly, the initial development of PC can be traced to the actions of three individual elephants. The first took place in 1988 at the Brookfield Zoo, when Patience knocked a female trainer to the ground, butted against her, and hurled her into a stone wall. The second transpired two years later at the Knowland Park Zoo in Oakland, California. This time, it was Lisa who ended up confronting the same trainer (whom had since relocated to the Bay Area to become the head keeper) and ripped the woman’s finger off in the process. The final event happened in February of 1991, when another Knowland elephant, Smokey, attacked and killed a separate handler. Cumulatively, these actions forced Oakland administrators into making a radical change in their elephant training methods. In June of 1991, Knowland Park would become the first zoo in the country to adopt PC. Others would soon follow suit. Remember Alice and Indu? Well, their respective institutions would put both of them under this new system of management and quickly. Likewise, at the Pittsburg Zoo, Moja’s second act of resistance initiated a new, permanent policy. All park elephants, henceforth, would be placed under protected contact. 

JASON HRIBAL is the co-author of The Cry of Nature: an Appeal for Mercy on Behalf of Persecuted Animals. He can be reached at: jasonchribal@yahoo.com