The “Happy” Elephant Home
Like most kids, I always fond of visiting zoos and reading all kinds of animal stories. In zoos, I got to see, to hear, and to touch my animal friends. And through those stories, I got to learn their lives. In my eyes as a child, they were living in a dreamlike world—a world without pain— where they certainly enjoy their lives. I kept holding that idea for a long time and never doubted it until last summer I had a trip to Thailand.
I happened to visit an elephant camp called Happy Elephant Home. It is a place where they claim themselves as an elephant sanctuary which helps mistreated elephants recover and live a normal life. Through my own experience and other people’s voices I learned, the owner was not telling the truth. He is not only owing multiple elephant camps including the crude ones, but also, he let the mahouts (elephant trainer) abuse elephants. So on one side the elephants seem living a happy life, on the other side—which is the side you wouldn’t be able to see directly—they were actually living a miserable life.
The disturbing truth made me doubt my longtime belief. Am I blinded by those childhood memories? Maybe I never outgrow the imaginary animal kingdom? What’s the real world out there? What about those animal living in zoos? Do they really enjoy their lives? I got panicked.
I started to question myself:
What’s our relationship with animals?
When we talk about the human-animal relationship one thing that we couldn’t avoid would be animal ethics. In the book Ethics and Animals Lori Gruen lists the animal ethics into four different categories:
The red words highlighted the problems that animals are facing right now. Billions of animals are killed for consumption each year; at least 115.3 million animals are used in research and an estimated 100,000-200,000 of these are primates (Taylor, et al. & Carlsson, et al.); and if you haven’t noticed already, we are in the midst of the sixth “mass extinction” in the earth’s history—an extinction that human activity is the cause. By the end of the century half of the nine million species could be gone.
But why there are many of us are not aware those problems? What stopped us from knowing the truth?
How to evoke awareness in people to let them reconsider their relationship with animals?
In the book Wild Ones Mooallem shares a concept called shifting baselines syndrome:
It’s not just that we start our lives unaware of the damage that preceded us, but that we end them burdened with having witnessed so much damage done (145).
Psychologist Peter H. Kahn Jr. has termed this phenomenon Environmental Generational Amnesia—our tendency to adopt the natural world we come to know in childhood as our psychological baseline against which we measure all change and which defines our expectation of how the world should be.
There a research on children’s books: researchers pulling a random sample of one hundred recent children’s books and found only eleven that did not have animals in them. Among those eleven, animals have almost nothing to do with natural at all, but are arbitrary stand-ins for people.
That’s why there is a disconnection between the two worlds. On one hand, there is the idyllic little kid’s dreamland, and on the other hand, is the messy, fragile ecosystem of the real world.
My question became to: