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Forgetting the False and Dangerous

An Interview with Kiersten Cluster

Carl Safina, used with permission.
Source: Carl Safina, used with permission.

Zoos teach us a false sense of our place in the natural order. The means of confinement mark a difference between humans and animals. They are there at our pleasure, to be used for our purposes. Morality and perhaps our very survival require that we learn to live as one species among many rather than as one species over many. To do this we must forget what we learn at zoos. Because what zoos teach us is false and dangerous, both humans and animals will be better off when they are abolished. —Dale Jamieson

Kiersten Cluster is an Early Childhood Special Education teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She teaches students ages three to five with moderate to severe disabilities. She holds a B.A. in English from U.C. Riverside, a J.D. from the U.C.L.A. School of Law, and a teaching credential and M.A. in Early Childhood Special Education from California State University, Northridge. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband Darryl and their two rescue dogs, Fiona and Marty. They also have two grown human children.

Kiersten Cluster, used with permission.
Source: Kiersten Cluster, used with permission.

As Kiersten shared on a previous Bear in Mind interview about Elephant trauma and recovery, there came a single day that radically changed her life. A visit to the Los Angeles zoo catalyzed her lifetime mission to bring Billy, a male Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), currently held at the zoo, to Sanctuary. Here, she re-visits the topic of Elephant psychological trauma and its etiology, which is inextricably intertwined, as New York University professor of law and philosophy Dale Jamieson writes, with human psychological, social, political and economic issues:

Kiersten, you have spoken about the profound psychological trauma of captive-held Elephants, something that is well- established in science, yet the effort to perpetuate wild Animal captivity through breeding and capture continues. Can you provide some background and help situate readers about this highly controversial issue? For example, talk a little about what is happening with the Elephants you are working to bring to sanctuary and some of the mental and physical health issues.

Kiersten Cluster, used with permission.
Source: Kiersten Cluster, used with permission.

Controversy continues to swirl around the Los Angeles Zoo and its Elephants of Asia Exhibit, as demonstrated by two recent events in the local news. On April 19, 2017, Los Angeles City Council Member Paul Koretz introduced a motion to the Los Angeles City Council calling for the release to sanctuary of Billy, the lone male Elephant (bull) who has lived for 28 years, and is currently living in isolation, at the Los Angeles Zoo. Two months later, on June 27, 2017, a new Elephant was delivered to the Los Angeles Zoo. Shaunzi, a 46-year-old female Asian Elephant, was transferred from the Fresno Chaffee Zoo to Los Angeles, purportedly to provide companionship for her.

On the surface, both developments appear to be positive for the Elephants involved, but in truth, only one is. Releasing Billy to sanctuary is the first and major step to an actual solution. The transfer of Shaunzi between zoos perpetuates the myriad problems of holding Elephants in captivity. As stated in Council Member Koretz’s motion, the use of barriers to create separate male and female enclosures “substantially has compromised the costly effort to expand the usable space for the zoo’s elephants.” Now there are three female Elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo crowded into one small enclosure.

Given this understanding, the question remains: If the reason for Shaunzi’s transfer was companionship, why did the Fresno Chaffee Zoo send Shaunzi to another zoo rather than take this opportunity to release her to sanctuary? There is a new Elephant Sanctuary in Georgia, established by the renowned Elephant expert Carol Buckley, the Elephant Refuge North America (ERNA) that could have provided a home for Shaunzi complete with a female herd of companions.

Can you describe the differences between the conditions of zoos and that which is considered scientifically psychological an physical conditions with which Elephants have co-evolved?

As copious, long term field research documents, historically, Elephants live in close-knit, relational communities of 20–30 individual Elephants of all ages and both sexes, with vast areas to share with other groups comprising the expansive herds that historically roamed over the African and Asian continents. For example, a study assessing the range of Asian Elephants in their natural habitats found that Elephants cover an area of at least 600 km (373 miles). Moreover, the myth that male Elephants are solitary has been long debunked. Males flourish within a social community that includes lasting bonds with other male Elephants, as well as interaction with females and juveniles on a regular basis. Young Elephant brains and minds are shaped through a complex of structured relationships and phases of development, again something that zoos cannot provide.

Kiersten Cluster, used with permission.
Source: Kiersten Cluster, used with permission.

Subsequently, from the perspective of science, the Los Angeles Zoo does not provide anything close to an appropriate environment for Elephants. The Elephant exhibit does not meet the most basic needs for space, exercise, socialization, privacy, and psychological wellness required by its residents. Moreover, the zoo is located near a freeway in a major city. The inescapable noise pollution has a negative impact on the sensitive acoustical adaptations Elephants have developed for life in their natural habitats. Their feet are incredibly sensitive and pick up communiques kilometers away. There is no justification for the captivity of this highly complex, intelligent, and social species, especially since research shows that Elephants experience severe, pernicious psychological suffering in captivity and isolation comparable to humans. When subjected to the deprivations and threats of captivity, Elephants and humans acquire symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

If there are so many devastating psychological and physical problems associated with Elephant and other wild Animal captivity in zoos, why do zoos, many of whom advocate for Elephant conservation, continue to captive-breed Elephants as in the recent case of the Pittsburgh zoo?

In early June of this year, a premature, low-birth weight female African Elephant (Loxodonta Africana) was born at a breeding compound used for the Pittsburgh Zoo (publicly called the International Conservation Center). The mother of the calf, 21-year-old Seeni, was transferred from an Elephant orphanage in Botswana to the Pittsburgh breeding compound in 2011—Seeni’s mother had been killed in a government mass killing of Elephants (cull). Seeni was then bred with a resident captive Bull to produce this calf. The zoo claimed that Seeni rejected her calf and did not produce milk, so the baby was taken from her mother and was bottle fed by humans in the Pittsburgh zoo, where, according to the zoo website, she was put on exhibit at only one month of age.

She was then taken off exhibit three weeks later because of her plummeting poor health. The baby Elephant was euthanized at three months. All the information regarding these circumstances was difficult to obtain. Pittsburgh Zoo exemplifies how zoos often hide or obfuscate what happens. For instance, the press was confused that they received notice from the zoo that the baby (who remained unnamed due to her fragile health) died. In actuality, she died a half-hour after the media was contacted. Furthermore, when asked, the zoo refused to say how the baby had died, and if and what drugs had been used. Zookeepers were also forbidden to talk with the public or press. Important questions remain: why the Elephant mother had her baby prematurely and why was she unable to care for her baby and produce milk?

What are the answers to these questions? Why is it that Elephant reproduction is so poor in zoos and circuses?

The reasons are clear. Reason one: by definition, zoos, and captivity in general, cannot replicate the wild. Reason two: trauma. It is well-documented that captive-held Elephants suffer from C-PTSD and, parallel with all mammalian studies including humans, trauma transmits across generations and even in utero. This was certainly a probability in this instance. Seeni had suffered successive traumas— she witnessed the death of her mother and family, was captured and transferred from her home in Botswana to what is essentially a prison (the zoo), and was likely forcibly bred. Her baby carried all these effects and on top of it all was taken from her mother and so suffered relational trauma at a crucial stage of emotional, neuroendocrinal, and physiological development. It is no wonder she failed to thrive.

There is a huge multi-million-dollar research effort by the Smithsonian and the National Zoo to “solve the mystery” of poor Elephant reproduction, infertility and infant mortality. But to any psychologist, the answer is obvious: chronic stress and trauma. Captive breeding is notoriously unsuccessful because captive-held Elephants are too traumatized to be able to function the way that they have evolved psychologically and physically. There are many reasons that it is extremely difficult to breed Elephants in captivity, from female hormonal dysfunction and lack of genetic diversity, to infant rejection and infanticide.

As zoo researcher Cheryl Meehan and co-authors admit: “Evidence that welfare is not optimal among zoo elephants includes reported high rates of stereotypic behavior, a high prevalence of ovarian acyclicity, various health issues such as obesity, tuberculosis, herpes, and foot problems, and compromised survivorship.” Even when a baby is born, neuropsychology predicts that the trauma of captivity will pass from mother to offspring, playing out over the lifetime of the new captive-held Elephant.

Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.
Source: Cari Zuckerman, used with permission.

Similar to Seeni, Billy at the Los Angeles Zoo is harnessed to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) drive to create a captive North American Elephant herd. Due to the age of the resident females, Tina and Jewel (both in their 50s), the Los Angeles Zoo keeps Billy in a separate enclosure at all times, depriving him of the socialization, psychological health, and freedom that are his birthright. Moreover, John Lewis, Director of the Los Angeles Zoo, has made it clear that they intend to use Billy for captive breeding purposes. The Zoo hopes to bring in younger females as potential mating partners while also artificially collecting Billy’s semen through a highly invasive process that has had no success to date. In short, Billy has undergone forcible masturbation. These efforts continue even though captive breeding of Elephants in North American zoos is spectacularly unsuccessful and reproductive issues are rampant.

Even if zoos are able to create a captive Elephant herd through artificial means, as Dale Jamieson puts it “they will not preserve species but rather transform animals into exhibits in a living museum.” Regardless, Shaunzi, Tina, and Jewel are not appropriate partners for Billy due to their ages, and they do not provide any relief from his loneliness. Shaunzi’s arrival has done nothing to improve Billy’s situation. He continues to live alone in a small space and expresses his profound psychological pain and distress through incessant stereotypic head bobbing and swaying. Such stereotypy is not dancing or excitement as it is often described, but a symptom of C-PTSD, a diagnosis common to human prisoners.

Why does the captive breeding industry continue?

Money. Baby Elephants attract the public and thereby bring in a lot of money.

You have made the point on several occasions that the psychological suffering of captive-held Elephants and other captive wildlife is tied with the psyche of humans—that the institution of captivity of Animals has a negative influence on human psychological wellness.

Yes. When we bring our children to see Billy and other captive-held Animals at the zoo and circuses, we are teaching them to normalize cruelty and to lose any natural empathy for another. This kind of emotional dissociation and sociopathy is a huge problem now in our society. To promote the suffering of another undermines our own wellbeing because good mental health is cultivated through positive, loving, and prosocial relationships. We cannot be well if the Earth is unwell. That is what we are witnessing right now writ large in the mass extinctions and ecosystem and human breakdown.

For our own wellbeing, and that of the Animals, it is imperative to stop the practice of holding wild Animals in zoos, roadside attractions, circuses, aquaria, and other exploitative venues, and transfer them to sanctuaries where they can enjoy quality life-time care and healing. These decisions do not belong in the hands of zoos alone. These decisions must have input from representatives of the public and civil servants such as Council Member Koretz, who do not have a financial interest in the captive industry. Only then will a consensus be reached that is truly in the best interests of individuals such as Shaunzi and Billy.

You have made a strong case against institutionalized Elephant captivity although you advocate for Billy and others to be moved to sanctuary, which is also captivity. What can Billy and other male Elephants expect in sanctuary that will be different than what Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) certified institutions provide?

Although still captivity, the philosophical and physical differences between a zoo and a true sanctuary are evident. Sanctuary provides psychological and physical healing, peace, privacy, self-determination, companionship, dignity, all the things they deserve and are deprived of in their current living conditions. For Elephants like Billy, Shaunzi, Tina, and Jewel, sanctuary is the best option since both captive conditions and environmental degradation have made it impossible for these Elephants to return to their homes. They will never regain their families again. The psychological ruptures are permanent. Sanctuary seeks to mend those raw wounds as best it can. The goal of sanctuary is to heal, not make money. They exist to serve the needs of the residents, rather than exploit. And, hopefully one day, sanctuaries will no longer be needed because the capture and captive trade industry will have ceased to exist.

Carl Safina, used with permission.
Source: Carl Safina, used with permission.

Elephants in trauma recovery need what humans in recovery need. Of course, there are species-specific needs such as large areas of natural grass, woods, ponds, mud—a landscape that emulates their home of origin as much as possible. But overall, they need the foundational elements which support inner and outer healing, what we call the 10 Ten Principles of Being Sanctuary.

We can never return what has been taken from these souls. But the best solution is to release Billy and the three females to sanctuary. If people have the best interests of the Elephants first and foremost, there should be no resistance against this. Billy can move to a forever home, at no cost to the zoo or the City of Los Angeles, where he will enjoy privacy, dignity, psychological healing and physical wellness after 28 years of public servitude. Ending the breeding program will ensure that there will be no future captive-held Elephants subjected to the cruelty of exploitation.

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