ke garne…what to do?

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 meet 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.

3 Responses to “ke garne…what to do?”

  1. sherryheim says:

    It is difficult to try to make cultural changes and to educate people in a way that goes against all that they believe. You were raised in a different world, Carol, and even though abuse of animals happens here, too, culturally it is not acceptible behavior. There is also the issue, there, of poverty and a sense of entitlement, that these people have the “right” to do whatever they please to animals. When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose and when you want something, you have to learn to take it, even if doing so requires force. Unfortunately, this mindset overflows into every aspect of life. You are a foreigner and these people are probably going to need a lot of time to become comfortable with your ideas and incorporate them into their culture, if that even ever can happen. You are right that the wildlife will need to be fenced to be protected from the people and vise/versa. Wild animals (and even domestic animals and humans) attack when they feel threatened and when they do, humans are injured or killed. While this is no surprise, the animal is then considered the attacker instead of the victim and often the animal is destroyed due to their violent behavior. We are all still primitive people, Carol, and we all need to learn to listen and see, more with our hearts than with our confused line of logical thinking that is the conditioning of our brains.

  2. Hrimati Dasi says:

    Dear Carol, I feel your pain. We have gone through some similar situations here in India. One reason they will not listen to you is, because you are a “white elephant” to them. Try to be tolerant and keep on educating. Keep on putting up signs and slowly they will move more and more farther away from the animals. Sometimes I had to act like a German General to get their respect, but we got it now to a point now, where we do not get any more curious crowds bothering the elephants, unless we leave the gate open and unlocked. Welcome to South Asia.

  3. JP says:

    Your post is very thought provoking. Indeed, what should/can we do, individually and collectively, to help produce real change for elephants (and all animals) and best support people, like you, Carol, on the front lines?

    These are questions I struggle with every day while sitting in the safety of my home. My guess is many of us who follow your journey would love the opportunity to work more closely with the elephants. However, the reality is only a small number of people, like you, have the real ability and courage to deal with the harsh conditions ever-present on the front lines of such a difficult situation. I admire you immensely.

    However, admiration will not save the elephants or other animals subject to abuse in culturally diverse populations. What does religion have to do with it? Probably a lot. What does education have to do with it? Probably everything. Why do people act in ways that seem so contradictory to their perceived religious doctrines? Who knows. We are in a race against time to save elephants, and other species, in a world where human populations are exploding and competition for land and resources will only increase.

    Unfortunately, I am not optimistic the next generation in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and worldwide, will be substantially better educated or more compassionate towards animals to the level that is required to save a large percentage in their native country. It will take several generations for substantial cultural change to take place and I am not confident elephants, rhinos, and many other threatened species have that much time.

    Certainly, Carol, your actions in the field immediately improve the lives of the animals you directly assist, and educating mahouts to more enlightened approaches of handling elephants is essential. Without this type of field education there can be very little progress or hope of changing attitudes.

    However, the reality is we still have elephants standing on their head in U.S. circuses, being bred in zoos nationwide and separated from their family, standing on concrete all day, confined to inadequate spaces, and the list goes on. Yes, there are pockets of improvement and the general public is certainly more aware of animal abuse and is beginning to insist on stronger animal protection laws. However, these changes, which are most effective long-term, require a cultural shift. Unfortunately, in the short-term, the progress may be too slow to save many species given the reality and complexity of inter-related cultural and economic conditions.

    So what to do? I, personally, believe that it will be nearly impossible to save many elephants, and other species, in their native country due to competition for resources and the lack of alternative income opportunities. I think the only hope for elephants, and many other species, may be an increased number of privately-held sanctuaries (The Elephant Sanctuary, PAWS, BLES, etc.) to be developed worldwide.

    How does that happen? I, and other like-minded people, have to dig a little deeper into our pockets to support the financial needs of starting and maintaining these organizations, support eco/animal-friendly tourism programs, and support all efforts to place people in office who support humane causes worldwide. In addition, more humane organizations will need to collaborate to be more effective … strength in numbers.

    In addition, I believe, some type of direct “rewards” program may be helpful if implemented in different communities. Is there jewelry or handmade goods that we could purchase from different local groups if they implement and maintain humane guidelines? If we purchase their goods, can a percentage be set-aside for the ongoing care of the animals? Ultimately, people need money and jobs to support their families, and any humane program, or shift in cultural thinking, will have to involve some type of cost/benefit initiative. It has to be more beneficial for people to sell goods than have a picture of themselves taken with an elephant or ride on an elephant.

    Carol, please tell us what you need to ensure your safety and those of the elephants and other animals you are helping. My guess is quite a few of us are unaware of many of the challenges you face daily and we want to help.