• T. Rutter

Thoughts: Free The Elephants Conference


This past weekend I had the singular experience of attending the Free the Elephants International Conference and Film Festival in Portland, Oregon. For those unfamiliar with this event, it was, so far as I know, one of the first times that elephant centered luminaries from all over the planet came together in one place to dissect, discuss and hopefully, find solutions to the horror that is elephants in captivity.

A veritable who’s who of experts and cutting edge documentaries highlighted, again and again, the torture that elephants endure in captivity. From Sangita Iyer’s gut wrenching “God’s in Shackles,” which illustrates the life of India’s temple elephants, to David Casselman’s reveal of the transcripts involving the plight of Billy, the Los Angeles zoo’s miserable, captive bull elephant. Did you know that all of the foliage in his exhibit is electrified, so that if he wants to engage in a natural behavior like browsing, he’ll be shocked? Imagine someone doing that to your refrigerator and you get the idea.

We heard from a former zoo keeper (Ray Ryan) who described in graphic detail, an elephant disciplinary method called “juicing”, in which a elephant is covered in water while an electric cattle prod is inserted in their anus, and if you think that is bad, we are just getting started.

Fortunately for us participants, in between these glimpses of what elephants endure, there were rays of hope; new sanctuaries popping up, (such as the Kerulos Center, catering to underserved, male elephants), victories, such as getting long suffering, Nosey transferred to sanctuary in Tennessee.

Artists Colleen Plumb with her groundbreaking, gorilla-style, video project, “30 Times a Minute” in which she projects massive images of zoo elephants onto buildings around world, and Larry Laverty with his stunning images of wild elephants throughout Africa, added a visual counter point to the sizzling panels and heartbreaking stories.

But what, at the end of these three, informative, tear filled, days, did we all come away with?

Did we put together a white board filled with bullet points and action steps on how to free every last one of the elephants around the world that are rotting away before our very eyes?

Nope, not even close.

But what we did achieve is something, in my view, even more important.

We listened to the elephants.

Over and over again, this thread ran through the days like a refrain:

“I was just minding my own business, and then the elephants called to me and I just had to get involved.”

“I’ve always loved elephants and I just can’t stand what is happening to them now.”

“I saw the elephants at the zoo and I realized it isn’t right that they looked so depressed.”

From Louisville, from India, Zimbabwe, Canada.

On and on and on and on it went, each of us, in our own way, overcame whatever financial, or physical challenges there were to be present in those rooms for one thing and one thing only:

The elephants had called us and we had come.

Maybe I am naïve in the sphere of elephant rescue. There were people who spoke that had decades fighting the fight under their belts, but I can’t help but feel that the ramifications of this conference will run like threads through the days and years ahead as we ramp up the fight to free these great, suffering souls.

Make no mistake, if you love elephants, if you care about their well being, if you don’t want to see them killed or ill used, then you too have heard their call and they need you to take action.

The elephants are crying out to us, and for those few days, in those stuffy conference rooms, we heard them loud and clear.


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