Elephant in the room

— Dear anonymous animal rights activist, it was wholly a pleasure to receive your somewhat agitated note concerning my opposition to a group doing business under the name “In Defense of Animals.” This organization is seeking to evict Ellen, the Little Rock Zoo’s elephant.

Are you always so angry and condescending? All that thunder and lightning poured out on my little Facebook wall can be quite intimidating, especially for those of us not blessed with your superior education and advanced familiarity with the latest scientific principles.

You have proposed that my position, which favors keeping Ellen in the Little Rock Zoo is “uninformed by the current state of knowledge of the intelligence of large mammals like elephants and their highly evolved social structure. IDA’s position is grounded in science; your argument is grounded in a certain selfishness that assumes that animals are placed here on Earth for the entertainment of humans.”

Now I know how David must have felt before going out to meet Goliath.My goodness, facing somebody who writes in such crisp and well-formed phrases sends shivers up the spine. By the way, dearest critic, do you have a name? That small detail seems to have somehow been omitted from your Facebook profile. Surely one possessed of your advanced credentials must savor lively interaction with academic authorities.

You must be very famous, and I am certain your true identity is splattered across the bibliographies of many graduate-level papers. It is an honor to be reprimanded by such an outstanding intellectual.

Here, presented with trembling hands, is the case for Ellen. First, your premise appears to be, in some respects, defective and abusive. You prejudice the discussion by positioning IDA as the possessor of scientific wisdom, while casting my argument as uninformed “selfishness.”

You freely reference the supposed“highly evolved social structure” of elephants. While one must certainly respect legitimate research, the very nature of the query raises issues concerning how one is to quantify animal intelligence and socialization.

Without making light of your brief statement, it is possible to observe that the supposed scientific measurements of complex human social interaction are subject to various interpretations and alteration over time. That is the essence of making and continuously testing a scientific proposition.

If we continue to reevaluate the social transactions of human beings, it is likely that the knowledge of animal social structures is also susceptible to occasional adjustment. How exactly does one reliably measure animal preference and interaction? Do elephants participate in questionnaires, interviews or focus groups?

While studies of animal behavior can be valuable, and must not be entirely dismissed, it might be useful to take into account the inherent limitations of such inquiries. Furthermore, it is observable that elephants readily interact with one another and humans, but we should be cautious about drawing conclusions filtered by human presumptions.

Elephants are to be respected for their unique physical qualities and their willingness to cooperate with people. Nonetheless, any suggestion that Ellen will benefit by being moved to a so-called “sanctuary,” demands close scrutiny.

In Defense of Animals presumes that there will be no emotional harm caused by removing a 60-year-old animal from a home it has enjoyed for the past 57 years. This seems to conflict with any presumed concern for the creature’s well being.

While we should generally resist the tendency to humanize animal behaviors and motivations, it may be appropriate to ask how you would feel about being wrenched from a familiar environment, and trusted companions, after more than five decades.

The IDA position seems to presume that there is no physical or psychological risk in loading up this giant animal in the back of a truck and hauling it along the highways. One may logically wonder what exactly motivates IDA.

A quick check of Google will show you that this international not-for-profit corporation is against just about every zoo. Their procedure is to go after any facility which has lost an elephant by death, as is the casein Little Rock, or any place where there has been an incident. The immediate goal of IDA seems to be gaining a monopoly on elephants and locating all of them in a limited number of so-called “sanctuaries.”

A decent argument canbe made that, since the death of Little Rock’s other elephant, Mary, Ellen needs a new companion. It has been suggested that the search for such an addition might take 8 years. Gentle friends, that is two full presidential terms and almost a full decade.

Little Rock Zoo Director Michael Blakely tells me that a suitable older, female, Asian elephant will be found. He also says that it will not take eight years.

There is nothing “selfish” in the suggestion that Ellen should remain in her home, where she takes daily walks and is joyfully observed by awestruck children and adults. If that is “entertainment,” then so be it.


Free-lance columnist Pat Lynch has been a radio broadcaster in Central Arkansas for more than 20 years.

Editorial, Pages 11 on 05/23/2011