This Elephant Voices contribution is from Elise Myslinski. Elise is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Though her degree is in business management, her true passions are writing, philosophy and ethics, vegan activism, and most of all, animals. She is also the proud parent of a wily little rescue pup named Jolie.
What do elephants mean to you? Maybe they’re a symbol of a different culture. Or a physical representation of benevolence, peace, and wisdom. They may symbolize the delicate balance between gentleness and brutality, having the amazing ability to be so tender and kind while also being capable of causing mass destruction. A duality of separate, opposing forces coming together in one majestic beast. While we admire and revere these creatures, there are others working tirelessly to create their downfall. How can humans see the same individuals of another species in such different ways, with some working to protect them as others fight to destroy them?
As children we adore animals, with their mysterious fur, skin, scales, and feathers. Talons, flippers, beaks, and tails. Fins, claws, hooves, and gills. We cherish stuffed animals of all species, enjoy books, shows and films about the curious adventures of our furry friends, delight in seeing the most massive and slight of curious beasts at zoos and aquariums, and squeal with pure joy every single time we see a puppy. But as adults, we enslave, torture, mutilate, devour, and destroy these same animals, even the dogs and cats that are supposedly our companions. We’re told that it is silly and childish to believe you can do anything to prevent harm to these innocent beings. Committing your life to help members of other non-domesticated species is pointless. They’re only animals. You’re just one person; you are powerless. But I disagree. It is time to nurture our innate compassion and rise above those that seek to eradicate it.
Years ago, I packed my bags and set off, traveling thousands of miles to India. While there, I experienced the most beautiful culture, tasted some amazing food, walked through history, and watched with youthful fascination as peaceful cows, daring monkeys, and scavenging dogs roamed the streets alongside me. But the most magnificent among them were the ancient elephants. So beautiful and glorious, I was completely enthralled to just be in their presence.
However, this feeling soon gave way to something much more sinister as I began to understand the horrifying lives they lead. I saw these glorious beasts chained and swaying with little ability to move without the infliction of pain, strapped with baskets to carry eager oblivious tourists, suffocated in layers of garish paints, swatted with sticks, entirely alone in a sea of people on the sides of busy streets. Watching them for only a few minutes, I began to see that these individuals were no longer the majestic, gentle, caring souls I thought they were. They were simply shells, beaten and broken into submission with nothing left to live for. Haunted by the excruciating abomination that was their life. They had no family, no friends. Only pain. For me, I simply had to watch. At any point, I could return to my normal life and quickly forget these horrors, but they could not. When you have an experience like this, something happens within you that causes you to question humanity, your life, and everything you think you know.
But what can we do about it?
Recently, I participated in a circus protest in my hometown. While a circus may seem like a nice family outing, full of acrobats and amazing animal feats, that is simply the act they put on for their customers; it is what they want you to see. Pay no mind to the men behind the curtain. They’ll say that these animals really want to be here, they have high welfare standards, their animals aren’t treated like those in the horrible, horrible videos you see online. What they won’t tell you is that their property, the elephants and other exotic animals, were kidnapped from their native lands and subsequently forcibly bred to make babies that would also lead a pathetic life of captivity, enslaved by humans to perform asinine tricks for paying customers. Often the babies are separated or sold off to other zoos and circuses, never to be reunited with their mothers.
I can still recall going to my one and only circus when I was quite young, and I was so excited to see all the beautiful animals. However, during the elephant performance, one of the poor creatures defecated in front of these hundreds of people. Though I was only a few years old at the time, I remember fearing for the elephant’s safety, worried that she may be punished for her insubordination. Now I know that this sad girl likely lived a life of fear and pain, each breath taking her one step closer to another whip commanding her to perform a trick, with never a moment of reprieve or solace or happiness.
There were only five of us at this protest, but we ensured that every car driving into the parking lot and passing by saw us. Though we faced some ridicule from a few families, unhappy that we may be spoiling their children’s fun, many people were interested in learning why we were there on a chilly Saturday afternoon. Every person that questioned us agreed that it is absurd to continue to treat animals so horribly, especially when there are alternatives. If we choose to pay for animal enslavement and torture when we could choose to visit an animal sanctuary that provides these same individuals with a loving home, what does that say about us?
Where did we get this absurd idea that because we have the power and ability to do practically anything, that makes it ok to do so? We have had this “conquer complex” drilled into us since birth that everything and every being was created to serve us, even if we don’t actually realize it. This formulated the belief that all things can serve a purpose for our benefit. By doing so, we have created an ability to excuse some of our most horrendous actions against the vulnerable, especially in places where the vulnerable have few rights.
Of all the animals in the world, there are none as large, wild, and dangerous, yet graceful, wise, and kind as the elephant. While pondering the question of what they mean to me, their purpose in my life, I realized that it doesn’t matter. I’m just some girl on the other side of the world that would have no clue such gentle giants existed if it were not for human interference. We like to believe that humans are the most dominant species on the planet, but with our intellect comes greed, destruction and the lust for power. In our wake, we leave hundreds, if not thousands or even hundreds of thousands, of extinct species and environmental catastrophes. Elephants are only one of our victims.
What truly matters is what elephants mean to themselves and to their environment. They form strong bonds with each other and fiercely protect their babies, elders, and sick from harm. They are sentient; they feel the physical world, they use their brains to think and learn, and they are all individuals. Every birth is a miracle and every death is a tragedy.
It is important to remember this, their sentience. A life cannot simply be equated to one’s ability to think, just as a human’s life is not worth any amount of money, level of intelligence, or ability to function. A life is precious for the sole purpose of the life itself. An elephant values his or her own life, just like a dog, a fish, a chicken, a snake, or a human value their lives. Even if not a single other being in the world valued my life, that does not mean I am worthless because I value myself. As Jeremy Bentham once said, “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?” In the ways that matter, they are just like us.
As we live our lives, we must always remember those that are not only less fortunate than ourselves, but also those that have no opportunities or means to speak up and defend themselves. We could all sympathize and agree that it is terrible what we do to animals, but words mean nothing without direct action. Though it may seem daunting and difficult, there is always a way to do something for animals wherever you may be.
For instance, if you were walking down the street and came across a man beating a dog, you would be presented with three options: one, you can join the man and beat the dog together; two, you can stand by and do nothing, causing no harm but also preventing none; or three, you can intervene and protect the dog from the man. With every decision we make, we must choose one of these options and decide what kind of person we will be in this world.
So, who are you?
Elephant Voices is a blog series sponsored by The Elephant Times and The Elephant Project. These are personal narratives from people around the world about their views and feelings about elephants and the struggles they face. If you or someone you know would like to contribute please let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.