I have held off writing this blog for weeks hoping that my experience was anecdotal. I also wondered if sharing my experience and expressing my concern could be beneficial or would simply broaden the already huge culture gap that divides humans who view all beings as sentient and those who do not. As the situation continues to repeat itself over and over again I realize—even though I am still unsure of the outcome—that an expression of my concern is required.
Over the past four months I have been immersed in creating a healthy environment for six captive held elephants in Nepal. The challenge to improve their welfare is relatively easy, their transition seemingly effortless. The problems we experience are not with the elephants, it’s with people.
Although the facility where I am working is a private NGO conducting wildlife conservation studies, the general public feels it is their right to enter the grounds and act in any manner they please, which at a minimum consists of invading the animals’ personal space to take photos—not of the animal but of themselves standing next to the animal. Sadly, the animal is insignificant; it is a photo of themselves that they wish to save for prosperity.
It has become increasingly distressing to witness the degree to which people disregard and abuse animals. Even authority figures are unable to protect captive held wildlife and wild animals from insidious abuse by humans.
This exasperating situation is repeated all over Asia, where wildlife, both captive and in-situ, find themselves harassed by frenzied mobs of non-empathetic humans.
Take, for example, the recent craze in Coimbatore forests in India, where crowds of people gather on a regular basis to incite wild elephants to become aggressive. Who has the power to change the mindset that gives people permission to harass wild animals on this grand scale? Where is common decency? And where does religion come into play in the cultural abuse of non-human animals?
It has been my observation that policing authorities have little influence on crowds of people unless batons and violence are employed. A seemingly docile crowd can erupt into an angry, violent mob in seconds. The trigger that transforms a crowd of people is simple: ask someone to stop doing what s/he is doing.
For example, request that a person not enter a private area and your request will be met with a refusal, followed by immediate argument. All the while, the offender will continue to enter the premises, totally ignoring the request.
The problem is compounded if the person is not alone but accompanied by others, which is most often the case. Everyone will equally ignore the request and add their voice to the argument. The volume of verbal resistance increases until a confrontation ensues, with the offending crowd encircling the requester, yelling their refusal in an attempt to intimidate.
The offenders appear to cross all lines of common decency, causing stress and trauma to the wildlife, who have no other way to respond but to become aggressive to protect themselves. At this point the animal is viewed as the offender and made to suffer further for his/her response to the abusive crowd of unruly people.
Trying to stop the abuse
I wonder almost every day what can be done to prevent widespread, systematic animal abuse. Education is the most obvious, but until such time as a new generation can be sensitized to the pain and suffering of non-human animals, the question remains, what can be done to protect the innocent?
We have tried posting signs, which are torn down and spat upon. Placing an educator in key locations to speak with the public, both about the wildlife and the appropriate human behavior in the presence of wildlife, proved equally ineffective. The public argues, demands to be allowed past the barrier, pushes past, verbally abuses the educator and demands to touch, feed and have their photo taken touching the captive wildlife.
I witness crowds of people taunting wild animals and intentionally abusing domestic livestock and street dogs on a regular basis. The lack of empathy and even malice shown toward non-human animals is mirrored in the manner in which a rioting crowd responds to authority figures. On too many occasions I have witnessed a complete disregard and disrespect for a reasonable and legal request, such as “please do not feed, tease, hit or touch the animal.” Surprisingly, many people appear to view these activities as one of their inalienable rights.
It is not possible for me to turn my back and walk away when animals are being abused. As result, on too many occasions, I have become the focus of an enraged crowd of near-violent humans ready to bash my head in because I have told them to stop harassing the elephants, to not hit the dog or even to refrain from tormenting the baby rhino. Admittedly, nothing I have tried has worked to stop the violence except to stand between the tormentors and the animal they have targeted. But this approach is not sustainable. So then, what to do?
Fencing has been used to keep captive wildlife in. Until a new empathetic generation emerges it appears the same approach must be taken to keep the human wildlife out.