The Sunday TimesPlus

23rd June




Dance of death: What led a performing elephant at the Dehiwela

Zoo to kill its trainer?

by Tharuka Dissanaike

When the elephants were being led to their customary dance performance on Friday June 14, nobody would have guessed the tragedy which was to follow. Raja, the Dehiwela zoo's majestic young jumbo was not himself that day. His disobedience of his mahout's command and the man's persistence in getting Raja to obey ended in a brutal crushing that killed the elephant man.

In the aftermath of this incident there was one question that plagued the minds of the animal loving public. Why?

What prompted an apparently tame jumbo bred in the zoo for 15 years, to lose control? What made an experienced mahout - with the zoo for 12 years- miscalculate the mood of the elephant ?

Does this mean no elephant can be trusted -if one so docile-could crush his keeper to death ?

The elephant has always been a kind of a national symbol which holds pride of place in our country. Its appearance in religious events and functions from ancient times gave it an aura of divinity. Called the gentle giant it was known more for its caring nature and loyalty towards a loving master. But now...............

Why did Raja turn angry towards this zoo mahout of 12 years ?

Reports of the incident said that Raja and the other zoo elephants were being lined up to go to the arena when the incident happened. As usual the mahouts were giving certain commands to exercise the animals before the performance. When Raja disobeyed an "up" command by Piyadasa , the mahout persisted. Raja lunged towards the man and struck him with his "Milk teeth" (two eight inch teeth under his trunk). The blow sent Piyadasa reeling against a wall and Raja lunged again, his trunk raised. The mahout died on the way to hospital.

"It all happened in less than a minute. If there was time to react we could have tranquilized the animal," said Zoo Director K. D. R. N. Wijesinghe.

Raja was calmed by the head mahout R. P. D. Wimalasenaand chained up. There were no elephant dances that day.

When we visited the zoo to take photographs of the animal, he was in his enclosure swaying on his feet, gently tugging at the heavy chains that bound him to the floor. He looked like any zoo elephant would. Even the zoo workers said that they did not see anything amiss with Raja after the attack. "He ate, drank and acted perfectly normal. The incident was like one isolated second of his life that was totally out of character," one zoo keeper told us.

The question arises whether it is really fair on the elephants to be made to perform everyday. Are they doing it against their will? Is this the reason why Raja lost his temper and lashed out at the mahout?

Experts say otherwise. These elephant performances at the zoo had been going on for nearly 50 years now. According to those who had been in close contact with this performing troupe at the zoo, these dances could actually be welcomed by the jumbos as a break from the monotony of their chained lives. Simple acts of sitting, standing, worshipping the mahout(s) and trailing around the arena tail to tail -everyday- do not really annoy the animals as one would think.

"If the atmosphere is pleasant, then there would be no cause to think that the elephants are harassed," Jayantha Jayawardena, who had studied elephant behaviour for many years said. He is currently doing a survey on elephants in Asian Zoos.

"Keeping elephants in zoos is inevitable. For breeding and conservation purposes we have to keep a few elephants in zoos," he said. According to his experience elephants do not really mind the performing tasks- in zoos and circuses as long as they are well looked after and properly treated.

Elephants are not averse to performing as long as the atmosphere is right. If they are harassed by the crowd or by the keepers it is natural that they will lose their temper, he said.

Jayawardena said that elephants too have varied temperaments. Some are more tolerant than others. Some are sensitive and would take offence at the slightest pressure.

"Often it happens when the mahout ill treats the elephant in some small way. If he is a drunkard and abuses the elephant and shows unkindness towards the animal, it could become violent." Jayawardena said.

He said that the zoo keeper's job, in the present day has to be looked at in a special light. "Most treat it as just another job and the right amount of devotion is not injected into it."

The correct atmosphere of caring and mutual trust, where the animals are certain of careful treatment sans harassment, is important to avoid this kind of occurrence, he said.

We spoke to a long time mahout, N. Mudiyanse, whose charge is the once killer tusker- Athula- now at Gangarama temple, to shed some light on the aspects of elephant keeping. His argument was quite close to the analysis offered by Jayantha Jayawardena. He said that the art of handling an elephant has to be studied properly in order to perfect it. "Many half baked mahouts are out there who do not know how to handle elephants properly."

Mudiyanse himself had learnt the "art" under an uncle of his since he was a child of eight-"When I could not even husk a large coconut," were his words.

According to Mudiyanse's interesting insights into the taming and keeping of jumbos, an elephant should show certain signs of welcome upon seeing his mahout in the morning. "If the animal does not greet the mahout by flapping its ears, trumpeting and moving shyly away, then the keeper should watch out."

He said that there are times when Athula, the elephant at Gangarama, is angry. "I know there were times when he would have killed me if I had not taken necessary precautions. There are times when the elephant is in musk, or when he is thirsty or hungry, when his love for the mahout is overcome by his anger."

Mudiyanse said that there are times, in the process of training and taming when punishment is necessary. The elephant must realize he is being punished for a certain deed, but must be treated well afterwards, Mudiyanse said.

He said there had been numerous incidents where mahouts, either drunk, uncaring or not vigilant enough of the moods of the animal had been struck down by his charge.

What is interesting to note is that the zoo elephants are not taken care of by individual mahouts. There are 10 mahouts to look after ten animals- but they all take shifts and do the work together. In this way an animal does not develop a special relationship with a keeper. There is some trust but not the kind of bond between mahout and jumbo.

But Zoo authorities said that Piyasena was indeed a diligent and trustworthy mahout who never shirked his duties. Perhaps we will never know for certain what made the jumbo attack, or if the attack was indeed meant for Piyadasa. One keeper said that Raja would have charged at anybody on his path at the time, and it was only fate that it was Piyadasa.

Tomorrow (24) the elephant dances will begin again. The zoo Director said that there had been no further incidence of disobedience among the elephants and he saw no reason to delay the dances further. But as for Raja, he will not be allowed to dance at the arena again for a long time.

Advertising: Whose Right to Choose?

Under Dog by Vinoth Ramachandra

"Advertising- giving you the right to choose", so runs the TV ad for the International Advertising Association. The consumer is always in charge; all that we do is give her information about a product, thus widening her range of choice. Isn't that a noble public service?

This is the folk-lore into which all students of marketing and advertising are initiated. Any new practical discipline which aspires for 'professional' status in the modern world must present itself as either 'scientific' or 'service-oriented' or (ideally) both. A great part of the socialisation of a student into any profession involves convincing the student that the profession that he is going to practice for most of his life is not ultimately about profits, status or power. The student is assured that what he is being trained to do is indispensable for human well-being.

These claims, common to all professions, are hardest to sustain in the case of the world of TV advertising. The eminent Arnerican economist Robert Heilbroner once angered a forum of businessmen by stating that he thought the greatest cultural effect of TV advertising was to "convince children that grown-ups tell lies for money". Mass persuasion becomes manipulative when appeals to sentiment are made to the exclusion of pertinent knowledge or else blur and obscure that knowledge. Even the IAA add, mentioned above, is a good example of this deceptiveness. Because it so cleverly done, several viewers I have talked to go away convinced that it is advertisers who make television programmes possible. The truth is the exact opposite: it is we, the consumers, who pay for television and keep the advertising agencies and their clients in business.

If the advertising industry maintains that its business is information rather than manipulation, then why are young people not informed, for instance, that the man you see in the white coat and stethoscope is not a real doctor, that the Marlboro Man actually died of lung cancer, that cosmetic companies make profits of over 500 per cent, that kids in the US suffer malnutrition through fastfood diets, that all the foods advertised on TV are less nutritious than those that aren't, that having a good toothbrush is more important for dental care than any brand of toothpaste, and a host of other issues that bear directly on the world of advertising?

Admittedly, many of the local advertisements we see on TV tell us what the product does. But, for this reason, they are usually perceived as boring, crude and amateurish. The cleverest ads, however, tell us nothing about the product but a lot about the kind of people who are supposed to buy the product. These are the ads on which hard-headed businessmen spend fortunes. Ads for Pepsi, for instance, revolve around the superstars of sport and show business. Coke, in contrast, presents itself as the drink of the upwardly mobile 'cool' set, crossing geographical frontiers and blending into every cultural background. But what is the actual difference between the two? Aren't they both simply over-priced sugar-water, differing only in name? In a situation of perfect competition, shouldn't consumer choice be brand blind?

The freedom to choose presupposes that there are real differences between the choices open to me. Also, unless I am given genuine information about what each choice will entail, there is no way I can make a rational choice. In the case of most TV advertising, one can like or dislike a particular advertisement, but one cannot argue with it. Much advertising strategy focuses not on what is intrinsically appealing about the product but what appeals to the buyer (e.g. to be like the filmstar in the ad). In his influential book about television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman goes further: " The TV commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products. What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer. And so, the balance of business expenditures shifts from product research to market research".

Advertising, especially on television, is about creating and selling images. It uses the power of the electronic media in the service of a religion of consumerism. It is not reality that matters, but appearance. Securing and promoting brand loyalties is the name of the game. Products are depicted as epic heroes, rescuing men and women from boring lives, messy situations and distressing relationships. Whether it is selling a detergent or a multinational bank, style counts more than content. When this advertising ethos permeates a whole culture (as it has in the US), the effects are far-reaching. In politics, for instance, having a good public relations consultant is infinitely more important than having good policies.

Children are especially vulnerable to the seductive power of images. Studies of advertising in Britain show that most children are already familiar with the more famous brand names (e.g Levis, Coke, MacDonald etc.) before they can read or write. A huge proportion of ads on Sri Lanka TV are either targeted directly at children or use children to manipulate adults (e.g. insurance ads). Advertisers sell dreams, and children's dreams are easily preyed upon. The cynical exploitation of children for commercial purposes raises serious moral issues. Unlike many other countries, Sri Lanka still has no ethical code of conduct for its advertising agencies. In any such code, the manipulation of children (both those who take part in such ads and those targeted by such ads) needs to be addressed.

Finally, perhaps the saddest aspect of TV advertising is the sheer waste of creative talent it represents. If only those same creative energies could be mobilised towards educating young people about, say, inter-ethnic understanding or caring for the earth or respect for the handicapped, or even how to avoid being duped by slick salesmen! Is it still possible to inject some sense of social and ethical responsibility into the world of TV advertising, or is it too much a tool of a profit-worshipping system to make such changes unlikely? Over to you, the ad men and women for your response...

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