By Scott Blais: Warning-graphic written content “Last night I read of an elephant named Calvin who was euthanized at a European zoo at the age of 29 due to a leg infection. The article profiled his life as a successful breeder, siring more than 14 calves in his short life. What the article didn’t mention was his real life, the truth behind the veil of “conservation success.”
Calvin was one of the first elephants I worked with; I met him in 1988, when he was just 2 years old. He was the first Asian elephant born in Canada and had recently been removed from his family and sent to the safari park where I worked, so he could be trained by some of the world’s “expert” trainers. At 16 years old, I was enthralled with this young elephant. He was too cute for words and I was going to have the unique opportunity to help train an elephant right from the very beginning.
I arrived to work on Saturday morning (at the time I was still in high school, studied during the week and worked on weekends) and there he was, adorable, precious and chained by two legs, by himself, removed from the other elephants. Within a few days training began. He was roped and tied within a web of chaos that was engineered to make him listen. When he was told to lie down, the ropes would be pulled, his feet would be jerked out from under him and he would land on his side eyes wide and screaming in fear. “Good boy” they would say. The ropes would be released, he would scramble to his feet and it would begin again, “lay down”, bellow, scream, slammed to his side “good boy.” From here he was taught an array of tricks: hind leg stands, front leg stands, painting, skipping, sitting down on the ground and ultimately he learned to give up and obey or receive the wrath of the trainers wielding hooks and hotshots (electric prods.) I was one of these trainers, I was learning as Calvin was, these were the inner workings of captive elephant management.
I remember one day when Calvin was particularly upset. We were teaching him to sit on a performance “tub” typically for circus style tricks. With aid of a harness, he was pulled back to the corner and forced to sit down, he would scream with such force that saliva would be frothing out of his mouth. This was one of the first times that his response was due to pain more than fear. When he was sitting the head trainer would tell one of the assistants to give him a treat, a few pieces of apple or carrot. ‘We want him to associate this with something positive’ they would say. Except they were shoving food into his mouth as he would scream, forcefully demanding that he accept his “positive” reward.
In one of the performances for the public, we would have the elephants pull logs to show the “cooperative partnership” of man and elephant that has been used for centuries. Calvin had his own small harness and pulled smaller logs than the adults but he would often scream while pulling. His trainer would say, “Oh you big baby, stop your crying.” Although smaller, the logs were still quite heavy. Some people complained because it seemed like we were hurting him, even the park management expressed concern. But, the trainers said, he’s just being a crybaby and he needs to toughen up.
Soon after, on the way back from taking the elephants to a lake for their daily swim, Calvin started to limp. Sometimes he would walk the nearly one mile trek holding one of his back legs up the whole way. The veterinarians said it was just cramps from growing pains, but it seemed to worsen. We stopped having him perform hind leg walks, as it looked like this was a cause, but he still was forced to pull the logs and he would still scream.
I loved working with Calvin; he was smart and still had his youthful innocence. But when I look back at photos, he was miserable almost all of the time-I just didn’t fully realize it then. This life was not about him or what he needed, it’s what the public wanted; he was the star of the show. People loved the baby elephant, the park loved the extra revenue and the trainers loved the prestige and thrived off of the power of forcing elephants to obey to their will.
Eventually I started to see and feel the truth of our actions. I left my job and began to work towards the founding of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. It was clear that this was not a life of quality for an elephant. The treatment that all of the elephants received was unjust, immoral and inhumane. From what I’ve gathered since I left, Calvin’s back legs grew worse and he was fairly crippled by the time he was 15. This usually ‘soft’ elephant became aggressive and couldn’t be used for performances, so he was used for breeding and eventually shipped to Germany for the sole purpose of bringing more lives into this cruel world of captivity.
People often ask, “Why?” “How can there be such disregard for these individuals?” The answer is simple, because people continue to pay. As long as people continue to support zoos and circuses, as long as there is a market, elephants will continue to be treated as a commodity. This will only change when we see animals as having a value for who they are not for how they can make us feel or what we can get from them. Until animals are no longer in captivity we will never fully respect nor honor them. We hear all of the time, “My child loves the animals” or that “It brings him so much joy to see them” or “We only go to nice zoos.” But these excuses condone, support and ultimately promote the continued disregard for their health and happiness. These animals are stolen from their homes and from their families and caged for our happiness. The simple truth is that heir sacrifice brings us joy and until we stop making excuses and start to make our own self-sacrifice, precious lives like Calvin’s, will continue to be demoralized, disregarded and eventually destroyed.
I will forever hear his screams, I will forever see the fear and agony in his eyes and I will forever work to payback my debt to all of the lives that have suffered by my actions as a former trainer and as a member of a society that continues to endorse this inexcusable slavery.
I’m so very sorry Calvin that it took your misery for me to see the truth, you deserved better.”
As a side note to what Scott wrote, Scott shares his darker past to help expose the true world of captivity for elephants, and all that it entails. Everyone who worked with elephants in that time period trained elephants the same way-it was the only way. But this reality is what sparked the creation of something beautiful, the need for something better: the first spacious natural habitat sanctuary for elephants. Scott also uses this part of his life to testify at bullhook bans, and speak in interviews, speaking against the perception that circuses and some zoos love to put forward- that bullhooks are just guides, they aren’t used to inflict pain. Scott can either hide from or be in denial of his past, or use it to even further help elephants-he chooses the latter.
We are also providing the link to the news story about his death-to show the utter lack of compassion the zoo shows, along with the callousness in which his life was regarded.