Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What Is Dr. Seuss Teaching Our Kids About Elephants? Revisiting the classic children’s book: Horton Hatches the Egg

If you remember anything from this story, it’s the line:
“I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful 100%.”

If that doesn’t even ring a bell, then watch this Merrie Melodies cartoon adaptation as a refresher:

Apart from the unnecessarily suicidal fish that is undoubtedly a Warner Brothers’ contribution, the video is (fairly) faithful to the book 93%.

Where HHTE fails:
The idea that an elephant and a bird could produce a hybrid offspring simply by the former brooding the latter’s egg (even if for an exorbitantly long 51 week incubation period), is absolutely ludicrous. This is nearly grounds for revoking Dr. Seuss’ PhD entirely and referring to him instead as Mr. Geisel.

But, apart from simply pointing out the scientific blunder, I won’t touch this issue with a thirty-nine and a half foot pole. HHTE is, first and foremost, a wildly imaginative children’s book, so the aforementioned pole is of far greater utility suspending my disbelief.
(Luckily, the world’s disbelief that elephants can suspend themselves in mid-air would not again require suspension for almost an entire year. Three hundred and sixty days later, a contemporary of Dr. Seuss’ named Walt Disney would reinforce this image of flying elephants being delivered by birds.)

Where HHTE succeeds:
The topic of elephants in the circus deserves its own post entirely, so I won’t delve into that here, but certainly the general idea of wild elephant capture is worth expanding. 

The depiction of humans in HHTE does not reflect favorably upon our species. Driven by a monetary greed, the only thing that stops the hunters from killing Horton is the realization that they might be able to turn a larger profit with Horton alive.

In this fictional case, because the humans realize that there is a market for elephants hatching eggs, all of a sudden the value they place in Horton’s life skyrockets.

When the use of captive elephants as beasts of burden for the logging industry came to an abrupt halt with a ban in 1990, elephant tourism filled the void and gave the captive population a new job.

In this factual case, because elephant traders realized that the market for captive elephants had changed, all of a sudden the baby elephant that was incapable of carrying a log yesterday is more valuable than the strongest bull elephant today.

In Thailand, elephants have lived in captivity for thousands of years; this reality is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Authorities on the matter speculate that the captive population is roughly equivalent to the wild population remaining within the country, with both figures floating in the 2,000 range.

If you want to make a genuine contribution to elephant conservation, you have to try and see the big picture. You have to think about the market that exists. You have to think about what these elephants are doing in captivity and how you can be certain that the wild populations are not suffering for the sake of the captive ones. For this reason, our partner organization in conservation, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), follows a practice of renting elephants instead of buying them. Renting an elephant out gives the mahout a steady source of income. If instead the GTAEF bought the elephant outright, the mahout would have a substantial amount of money but would be out one very large business partner. Now, certainly the mahout has the money, but given the means to secure one, the cheapest place to find a new business partner is out in the wild.

Conservation does not happen in captivity. Certainly we want to encourage proper management of and welfare for elephants in captivity, but we must focus our attention on the wild populations. That’s why the scientists behind Think Elephants International feel obligated to learn as much as we can from the ones that live among us in a controlled setting, so that we can devise novel techniques to troubleshoot the old problems that continue to plague existing conservation efforts.

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