Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Yangon Zoo’s elephant show ‘grotesque’, animal rights groups say

As working animals around the region are dying from heatstroke, Yangon Zoo is forcing its elephants to perform strenuous tricks in temperatures upward of 40 degrees Celsius.

Elephants are forced to hold unnatural poses in the heat.(Nick Baker / The Myanmar Times)Elephants are forced to hold unnatural poses in the heat.(Nick Baker / The Myanmar Times)

Outraged animal experts claim that such shows in this heat may injure or even kill the elephants.

A troupe of elephants, one as old as 62, are led through circus-style routines in front of hundreds of onlookers each Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

The Myanmar Times attended the show on May 14 and witnessed the animals visibly struggling in soaring heat with no water in sight.

While the spectacle amused some attendees, others were clearly concerned. “This is not good for these elephants. It’s too hot,” said one visitor.

The tricks included feats some animal rights workers deemed highly controversial even without the added element of a heatwave.

One elephant, likely to weigh numerous tonnes, was coerced into climbing on a small metallic cylinder as it precariously rolled across the stage.

Two others balanced on elevated platforms and struck poses unnatural to elephants which they were urged to hold.

Other acts included dancing, playing the harmonica, kicking footballs and shooting darts.

“No elephant at any age should be subjected to these performances, but especially an elderly 62-year-old,” said Debbie Leahy, captive wildlife manager with the Humane Society. “This elephant is probably performing through constant pain.”

Yangon Zoo is holding these performances despite a number of elephants and other animals in zoos and tourist parks across Asia recently dying while forced to work in unseasonably hot conditions.

Sambo the elephant made international headlines last month after it died from heat exhaustion while giving rides to tourists around Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex.

Myanmar’s oldest zoo is already known among tourists for questionable practices such as small and poor- quality enclosures.

But discussions with animal rights activists and elephant specialists have revealed just how cruel, and potentially dangerous, Yangon Zoo’s current elephant performance is.

The Myanmar Times contacted animal welfare groups both nationally and internationally with a detailed account and photographic evidence of the May 14 show.

The collection of responses, which totalled more than 5000 words from five countries, was nothing short of scathing.

Jan Schmidt-Burbach, the Asia Pacific wildlife program manager at World Animal Protection, said ele-phants can only perform these very “unnatural” feats after enduring a “highly stressful” training regime.

“This training is carried out with the use of punishment and force, contributing to the psychological trauma that many of these sensitive animals develop,” Mr Schmidt-Burbach said.

Once the routine is perfected, the short- and long-term physical and psychological effects can be extremely severe.

Ms Leahy with the Humane Society said that forcing the elephants at Yangon Zoo to perform these “grotesquely exaggerated manoeuvres” was likely causing them to suffer long after the show.

“Performing gruelling circus tricks, such as hind-leg stands, sitting up, balancing on a wheel and crawling, place a great deal of stress on the muscles and joints of elephants, which can lead to premature arthritis,” she said.

A recent paper by the Animals Asia Foundation found that the development of joint problems and hernias were more common in elephants forced to perform circus tricks.

The paper detailed the mental debilitation performing elephants face. The “frustration and fear” associated with the situation can cause chronic stress to develop. High levels of chronic stress mean structural changes in the brain and cognitive dysfunction.

There is also the threat of injury to the elephants. The exceedingly heavy animals are at risk of falling during some of the more ambitious feats like balancing acts.

An elephant performs at a circus-style show at the Yangon Zoo on May 14 in 40 degree Celsius heat. Animal rights groups criticised such tricks under any circumstances, but warned that in such heat the elephants could die.(Nick Baker / The Myanmar Times)An elephant performs at a circus-style show at the Yangon Zoo on May 14 in 40 degree Celsius heat. Animal rights groups criticised such tricks under any circumstances, but warned that in such heat the elephants could die.(Nick Baker / The Myanmar Times)

As for performing in 40C and up, the animal welfare experts were unanimous in their condemnation.

Ashley Fruno, manager of international operations at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Asia, said it was only a matter of time before the heat takes its toll.

“Elephants develop sunburn from the long exposure to direct sunlight, and they are susceptible to heat

exhaustion that can escalate to heatstroke, especially in Yangon’s high temperatures,” she said.

“This can cause elephants to collapse, experience seizures and death, similar to Sambo in Cambodia.”

The elephants’ performance routine was described as almost the exact opposite of what wild elephants would do as the mercury climbs.

Founder of Elephant Aid International Carol Buckley said that during the hottest part of the day, elephants “naturally would seek shelter from the sun, exert as little energy as possible and sleep”.

“[And] their cooling mechanism requires them to conserve energy or dispense pent-up body heat by submerging in water.”

Daw Khyne U Mar, one of the country’s preeminent elephant doctors and principal research staff member at the Myanmar Timber Elephant Research Project, said Yangon Zoo “immediately” needs to send their administrators and vets “to modern zoos to learn the modern zoo practices” or “invite [international] zoo professionals to update the management system”.

She said that no vet at this zoo has an international postgraduate degree on exotic animal health and biology, a claim The Myanmar Times could not independently verify.

“I am very sad to see these pictures of Yangon Zoo,” Daw Khyne U Mar said, “[The show] is unacceptable.”

After the half-hour show the ele-phants are then left on nearby concrete platforms, some in chains, where people pet and feed them sugarcane until late in the day.

Some elephants clearly displayed what is known as “stereotypic behaviour” – repetitive movements like head bobbing or body swaying. Animal experts say this is caused by a monotonous lifestyle and is widely considered a symptom of poor welfare.

A staff member from the zoo also confirmed elephant rides were also continuing in the hot season.

One expert told The Myanmar Times that rides should only be allowed under very strict conditions and stopped if the temperature exceeds 24C.

Globally, there seems to be a major shift in public attitudes around the use of elephants for performances.

In the US, even stalwart circus acts Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus recently retired their elephant act with many circuses and zoos elsewhere following suit.

“Yangon Zoo is behind the times,” said Ms Leahy.

The Myanmar Times repeatedly tried to contact the Yangon Zoo for comment for this piece. It did not respond.