Today I visited Eliza Wierwight’s 35 Elephants, an exhibit that shines a disinfecting spotlight on the plight of elephants enslaved to carry out logging and entertainment in Thailand. With support from the Linden Endowment for the Arts, this exceptionally moving exhibit is a demonstration of the potential for good in Second Life that we glimpse from time to time, yet in which we all could invest so much more.
I could write about the exhibit itself: the evocative displays, the ugly visuals of despairing animals, the happy images of animals that this organisation has been able to save. However, this is something better experienced rather than read about. Instead, I’ll share some photos and urge you to visit this exhibit, and donate what you can to save an elephant through the Save the Elephant Foundation.
Despite depicting them as models of ideal human values in classic literature and contemporary culture, our treatment of the elephant has been anything but humane. It’s so easy to forget how unkind; how truly cruel and indecent we have behaved towards these extraordinarily magnificent animals.
Despite their size and power, these intelligent creatures are known for their loyalty and friendliness to each other, and to us, making advanced social connections and expressing relatively complex emotions that are rarely observed in the animal kingdom.
Despite being capable of the same learning, cognition, and self-awareness that’s been demonstrated in apes and dolphins, we have enslaved these noble creatures since ancient times. And in so doing, our disrespect for them has been boundless.
We have made them our instruments of war, teaching them to harm and kill people. We’ve forced them to destroy their own habitats, levelling the forests in which they find refuge. We’ve murdered them to rip out their ivory tusks, to feed our vanity and greed. We have made them the objects of our banal entertainment, from the earliest menageries, to modern-day circuses and zoos. Even today, in Southeast Asia, traveling westerners continue to support a local tourist economy built on exploiting elephants in shows, whilst we pose for trophy shots as we ride on their backs, having them perform tricks for our amusement under restraint. This disgusting reality so dissonantly conflicts with the docile nature of these creatures, it is truly staggering in its contempt.
These animals use tools. They carry out death rituals. They are capable of incredible feats of memory. They provide welfare for their own sick and dying, the such that can be interpreted as “concern”. These animals hug each other by wrapping their trunks together in displays of greeting and affection, they care for each other’s young, babysitting and engaging in the collective nursing of calves.
Today, we have made elephants an endangered species – meaning, they face a very high risk of extinction in the near future. In Thailand alone, there are 2500 in captivity, and only 1000 left in the wild. It’s a pitiful number, precipitating scarily near the threshold required for genetic diversity in an increasingly homogenous environment.
Our responsibility is clear and simple. Opportunities like these, however, aren’t only about saving an exotic animal, although that should be enough. These are the chances we have to perform anonymous selfless acts of compassion that demonstrate to ourselves what it is to be human. Please, go today and make a contribution – it only costs just over $100 USD to save an elephant – between us all, that’s peanuts.