Courtesy of Zimbabwe and China, Another Threat to Elephants: Enslavement

Nature University | National Geographic

Nature University | National Geographic

It seems that where elephant welfare is concerned, every rose has its thorns — or every pole has its hook.

Yesterday, I rejoiced over America and China’s joint agreement to enact near-total ivory bans. The move represented a huge breakthrough in saving elephants, as China and the U.S. are the world’s first- and second-largest ivory consumers. I squealed when I saw the headline; I posted a brief, impassioned status about it on Facebook. For not even a day, I had renewed hope that perhaps, we can save elephants from extinction — perhaps, we can afford them the lives they deserve as emotional, sentient beings.

Now, again, I bow my head in despair.

In March, the Zimbabwean government captured 80 elephant calves, stealing them from their families in Hwange National Park and storing them in cages. Four months later, Zimbabwe sent 24 of those calves to China, flying them there in the dead of night.

Chinese zoos are known to mistreat their elephants, valuing them only for the money they harness from visitors. The zoos rarely have the resources to meet elephants’ physical and behavioral needs, putting elephants’ health at risks in both their enclosures and lack of proper medical treatment. Moreover, China lacks legislation to protect animal welfare, giving the zoos — which often beat, prod and starve animals, elephants and otherwise, to teach them unnatural tricks — nearly free reign.

As such, it should have come as no surprise that when National Geographic released photos of the Zimbabwean elephant calves in China, the animals showed signs of malnourishment, neglect and outright abuse. In fact, I was not surprised — I knew better. Seeing the images, however, remained shocking.

The calves, such as the one pictured above, suffer bloody cuts, swells and abscesses. According to Scott Blais, the CEO of the Global Sanctuary for Elephants, most of the cuts were likely caused by infighting among the calves, some of whom have small tusks. Taken from their families at such young ages, the calves are missing essential years in social development. Infighting reveals unnaturally aggressive behavior on the elephants’ parts — without their herds’ guidance, they have started losing empathy for one another, “a core element of their normal state of being.”

Bullhooks, often used to transport, discipline and traditionally “train” elephants, likely caused the other cuts. According to elephant behavioral expert Joyce Poole, none of the calves’ photographed injuries — whether caused by tusk or hook — have been treated. Rather, the elephants’ handlers are letting the wounds fester, causing some calves to develop infections and swelling.

The photos also show little to no food for the elephants: only grass, too short to eat, scattered across their enclosure. No water sources are visible either. The lack of adequate nutrition accounts for the elephants’ protruding bones and mottled skin.

In addition, some of the older calves appear to have had their tusks broken off at the lip. Poole called that occurrence “highly unusual,” speculating it might signify damage during shipment or pushing against the enclosures’ bars.

Zimbabwe last sent elephants to China in 2012 — eight calves, healthy in the wild, again stolen from their families. As of today, seven of those elephants have died. Chinese zoos’ maltreatment has caused creatures who normally live around 70 years in the wild to die before living a decade. Now, 24 new calves face that deadly fate.

Why is Zimbabwe kidnapping elephant calves, sending them effectively to their deaths? The Zimbabwean government claims that despite the current poaching epidemic, they suffer elephant overpopulation. Claiming to harbor between close to 100,000 elephants on land that can only hold 50,000, Zimbabwe’s leaders justify selling calves to offset that problem. However, wildlife groups disagree with their statistics.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a nonprofit group, contends that Zimbabwe’s government has not audited their elephant population since 1997. Instead, the Task Force argues Zimbabwe has overestimated their figures to sell calves for $40,000 to $60,000 apiece. The Elephant Database — which receives reports from an international network of nonprofits and governments — found that Zimbabwe had only 47,336 elephants in 2012, down from 84,416 in 2007. The Great Elephant Census, a project aiming to calculate southern Africa’s elephant population by 2016, counted only 20,000 elephants in the region as of March.

Meanwhile, elephants as a species face extinction, due to an uptake in poaching and habitat loss. According to 96 Elephants, a nonprofit organization, 96 African elephants die every day — one every 15 minutes. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, released statistics showing that poaching rates currently exceed elephants’ birth rates. The United Nations reported in March that between 20,000 to 25,000 elephants are slaughtered per year, and conservation groups argue that African elephants face extinction within decades. Yet CITES has refused to classify African elephants as endangered. Moreover, CITES has sanctioned Zimbabwe’s elephant sale — trading most ivory is illegal, but trading live elephants is not, and the sale does not threaten the entire species.

That point of view ignores animal rights, and the rights that elephants in particular deserve. Elephants are among the most sensitive, intelligent creatures alive, close to humans. They recognize their reflections in mirrors; they can paint themselves; they cover loved ones’ corpses with dirt as mock burials; they cry when sad; they form lifelong relationships; they love. Stealing elephant calves from their mothers does not threaten all African elephants, but it inflicts inhumane, reprehensible treatment upon those unfortunate calves. Elephants drink their mothers’ milk until they are three or four years old; some captured calves have not yet reached two years. All the calves are missing vital emotional, social development. They have been abused and traumatized, and will likely die early, in wanton state.

Ending the ivory trade is essential, but for elephants, it’s not enough. We must respect them and their rights to natural, healthy lives. By treating its elephants as mere objects to sell, Zimbabwe is forcing calves into pachydermic child slavery. By beating their elephants and denying them medical treatment, Chinese zoos are holding calves in conditions that, if the children were human, would provoke riots.

Even as we celebrate advancements in elephants’ survival, such as America and China’s ivory agreement, we must remember the progress that remains to be made. Elephants are more than their tusks. To call ourselves not just human, but humane, we — Americans, Chinese, Zimbabweans and beyond — must enable elephants to live in peace. Just as we would protect our own children, we must protect elephants from slaughter, abuse and enslavement.

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Three

For Meema, with love.

***

I tried to write about my grandmother’s death three times.

The first time, I tried to write about her photograph. As we set up shiva the day after Yom Kippur, I found pictures of Meema that Daddy had lain out. The glassy paper atop the pile toppled me, and I trembled into a seat on the nearby sofa. I sank into the white, dusty cushions as Meema laughed, lips her trademark shade of fluorescent pink, hair the color of sterling, framing the crinkles around her cocoa eyes. Meema was known for two looks: one of adulation, and one of disgust. This photo carried the former. She stood against a pale desert sky, sun searing the sands, but Meema lit the picture. The sun bowed and let her brighten the world.

When I saw that photograph I breathed in, out, out, in, trying to keep steady before collapsing into a lake. But I looked back at her smile, the look she always gave me, and dove into the water. It was an ocean, a warm one, not a lake after all; as I let its drops bathe me I lipped salt. A constant in and out – salt dries me, water replenishes. I set my Meema onto the stubby coffee table, sunk into the couch and cleaned myself in the ocean, hearing its droplets land in pitter-pats beside me. As the ocean seeped from my eyes, the red hue defacing my brown orbs dissipated. I came up for air from the water minutes later, with Mommy’s weight familiar on the plain cushion next to me. I jerked away from her outstretched hand and ran from the beach. I didn’t look back – looking would mean explaining, and explaining would mean knowing, and I had just washed that from myself.

The second time I tried to write about Meema, I thought about the call. Daddy’s cell phone, encased in pink rubber for which the store sold no alternative, buzzed in his pocket as he picked apart my essay. It was my college essay, and it seemed to throb with importance, beaming with the brightness of the future it could grant me. But the phone shone through Daddy’s pants pocket, and he set down my essay to answer it.

“Hey, Tom… Yeah. I was going to go down – Damn. Okay.”

I clenched.

“Okay, well if I have to come early, I will… Okay. Yeah.”

I stared at his tapping fingers.

“Love you. Let me know.”

Daddy hung up the phone and bent down, breathing the earth beneath our house’s paltry floors before he faced me. “She’s worse.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s just crashed. Her blood sugar, her heartbeat – everything they can measure. It’s just crashing.”

I envisioned my Meema’s innards attacking each other, battling the great war they had threatened so often before. Organs, vessels, cells crumbled upon impact and Meema’s body crashed to the ground. Her soul hovered, shocked at its own demise, unsure where to go.

I darted downstairs and found Mommy in her usual seat in the den, cozy with a mug of tea and dark green leather cushions. “Tom called,” I said, and spilled out the rest. I returned upstairs and she followed me, and we sat next to Daddy, who didn’t want to be touched.

The phone rang again, burning the room.

“Hey, Tom… Okay. Damn.”

The clock blared 10:20 p.m. when I buried my head in my hands. I tried to compress my body into a shell so I could hold Meema’s soul within me, and pull her back down to earth where she belonged.

“—We’ll talk about that later. Love you. I’ve gotta go now… I’m okay. But my daughter just lost her grandmother.”

At the confirmation I wailed, and felt warm arms around me. They lifted me up although I wished with all my might to crash down.

The third time Meema plagued my mind, I tried to write about us. I typed out vague memories about my infancy, when she let me chase her in her size-four high heels. I relived stronger memories – when I was seven years old and hated strangers, and she was my only relative who never made me hug her. I was young and shy and picky, but she trusted me to grow without her help. I did grow up, and began hugging her on my own accord whenever I could. The first time she asked me to hug her was a month before her death, when she declared her lack of personhood and could barely sit up anymore. I hugged her and lifted her to wipe shit off her nightdress, and I helped her reach her keyboard so she could play for me. She could not walk or bathe or eat or drink or hear or shit into a toilet, but she played “Getting to Know You” note-for-note, in perfect rhythm. Through her deafness, I sang along.

That last time Daddy and I saw her was a five-day trip. Every day we went to see Meema, still stubbornly living alone, and every day she turned us away. I’m too tired, she said, can you come later? She was always asleep later. She said this, too, the last time we saw her, the last day of our last trip to see my last grandparent. When we said we couldn’t come back later, her face fell. I’m sorry, she said, I wish I could be with you, but I can’t. She gave us both her love and held our hands before looking straight at me. I’ll come visit you, she said, I promise. Then she fell back asleep. Daddy and I put her hands by her side, left her apartment and collapsed in the hallway, like bawling children. She always kept her word, but I knew she would not visit me.

The fourth time I wrote this, because I needed to write about her. She with the smile that outshone the sun, the revolted frown that marred her last face – she had no clue how to die. The pint-sized woman who trusted children and their naivety, who let music dance through her fingers and lips. Meema is not a photograph or a death, or even memories that traipse through my mind at inopportune moments, dunking me again into that plaguing ocean. She is all of that, a whole, a heartbeat in a vast web of lives, and she is the steady fingers that hold my hand while I quake at night.

Confirming Old Warnings, a Brush with Hatred

They warned me.

“They” refers, in this case, to dozens of people. My parents; my aunts and uncles; older friends who have graduated; even my rabbi. All of them warned me about the anti-Semitism I would face in college. Although I listened, I didn’t quite believe them. I would go to a college with thousands of Jews, in New York City, a city with millions of them. What kind of fool could hate Jews there?

I met him today. On my way to the farmer’s market outside my school’s student center, I passed a tall man wearing a white T-shirt and a silver, fist-sized cross. He held up a large sign, screaming in red letters, “GOOGLE IT!!!” Below that, in black: “China says Jews control America.”

For a moment, I thought I had misinterpreted the man’s message. Then, he turned around, and I read the back of his sign: “CHINA IS RIGHT.”

Despite all my Jewish history — despite my knowledge about stereotypes — despite the rage and shock that boiled in my chest, pulsating harder than my heartbeat — I froze.

What could I say to that man?

He was taller than me, tanner and visibly buffer. He hated my mere existence. He was foolish enough to believe Jews hold America hostage, dangling our country alongside stolen dollars in crooked fingers. He was so convinced of his correctness, his righteousness, that he stood outside despite the heat in a heavily Jewish area to publicize his warped beliefs.

I could not change that man’s mind in one conversation — not with the few minutes I had — and could not ensure my own safety while doing so. Though we stood in a public area, surrounded by people, he could hit me. He could kick me. He could push me backward and pretend my words were the buzzes of flies.

When I first saw the man, I walked past him in silence, as everyone else did around me. The man stood right in front of my college’s entrance, apparent to all eyes, but no one spoke a word to him. Some people glanced at the sign, then looked away; they shuffled their feet faster, uncomfortable, unsure. I took my cues from them. I went to the farmer’s market and browsed the stands. I bought a pound of honey, but skipped the apples because bruises marred their skins. I signed up for the market’s list serve and chatted with the sellers. All the while, I could not forget the man. He stood feet away from me, silent, holding up his offensive sign. I saw the glaring declaration — “CHINA IS RIGHT” — under my eyelids: whenever I blinked, the writing, red as blood, glistened before me.

What could I say to that man?

As I returned to my dorm, jar of honey in hand, I passed him again. This time, words jumped out of my mouth: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” My heart raced. I looked to see if he had heard me; either he hadn’t, or he was feigning deafness. I felt the words bubble in my throat — the accusations of ignorance, the “How dare you,” the hundreds of reasons he is wrong. But I said nothing more. He never returned my gaze and after a moment, I turned away. I walked back to my dorm fighting tears — of anger, of disgust, but also of shame.

In most of my blog posts, I state my opinions. Here, I cannot do that: I do not know what I think. I am not sure I did the right thing; I am not sure, in that situation, what the “right thing” would have been. Should I have told him why he was wrong, despite the fruitlessness and danger of that pursuit? Should I have stayed silent like the other passersby, knowing my words would sail past his ears like a cool breeze anyway? Was I right to shame the man, however ineffectually, and should I have repeated myself to make sure he heard my words? What should the people around me have done, the shufflers, who averted their eyes and kept their lips sealed shut?

I doubt one solution exists for this dilemma, a problem that Jews and other minorities have dealt with for too long. I, alone, can certainly not find an answer. As such, I turn to you to use this blog’s comments feature. What would you have done in this situation? How do you think I should’ve acted? No matter your answers, I won’t be offended; that would render mute the point of sharing and considering others’ viewpoints. I want to learn from you, as I do too rarely. Whether you have faced anti-Semitism or another form of prejudice, please, tell me about your experience, if you feel comfortable doing so. Other readers, I hope, will learn from your comments as well. The intricacies of hatred — both its substance and the fight it inspires — are things we all must, as responsible citizens, learn.

The man who stood outside my college today proved adults’ resigned warnings right. I have brushed anti-Semitism now; I will confront it, and other forms of hatred, again. Next time, I want to know what to do. We all — man or woman, Jewish or Christian — must know what to do. Otherwise, the men with offensive signs will remain, bigoted and ignorant, spreading the messages that keep hate alive. I hope we can start that discussion here, below this post. I hope we all learn something from the comments, myself most of all.

Amid College Life’s Haste, a Religious Respite

By most definitions, I am not a religious Jew.

Biologically, I am as Jewish as bagels and lox. My father is Jewish; more importantly, so is my mother; so were their parents, and theirs, as long as my family has lived. Our Judaism sustained us in tiny Eastern European villages, where my ancestors survived illness, poverty and pogroms. Our faith carried us from Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus to Canada, America and even Israel. Our Jewish heritage binds us today: we reunite at scattered cousins’ B’Nai Mitzvot, complain about our lack of grains during Passover together, sit shiva for the shared family members who must leave us.

Yet in certain key ways, some might consider me unobservant. I don’t keep Kosher — not even anti-pork Kosher Lite — and feel no guilt over that fact. I rarely attend services outside of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days that even the most secular Jews honor. My support for the modern state of Israel wavers on a regular basis: I believe in Zion, but the nation Benjamin Netanyahu leads does not fit my definition of a Jewish state.

These past two weeks in college, however, I have found myself drawn to my faith in one key way. More seriously than ever before, I have begun celebrating Shabbat.

Keeping Shabbat is one of our Ten Commandments. On Mount Sinai, God ordered Moses, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:8-11).

Due to the Hebrew calendar, Shabbat begins at sunset every Friday and continues until the sun sleeps the next day. Jews begin the celebration with a dinner, usually with family, and then attend services Saturday morning and evening. More notably, Shabbat should serve as a day of rest. Orthodox Jews conduct no creative work — that is, work which exercises control over their environment. Bakers stow away their flour; fire pits contain no flames; farmers turn off their plows and let their crops grow untrimmed. In a modern context, orthodox Jews cannot write or use electronics during Shabbat. They cannot drive or travel in any motorized vehicle, hence the Jews in pressed slacks and button-down shirts you may have seen walking through rain or heat on Saturday mornings.

I do not keep Shabbat as an orthodox Jew would. Yet in a short time, I have come to hold Shabbat’s principles dear.

Although I do work on Shabbat, I pause. My first Friday night at college, I attended a Shabbat dinner at the local Hillel. For that hour, I didn’t worry about my classes or cleaning my room. I let myself enjoy my food, mouthful and morsel alike. I made friends with the other Jews assigned to my table, all strangers with one common trait. I thought about my parents, although they had snuck into my mind anyway.

Unintentionally, I followed both of God’s instructions for the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy 5:12, He ordered us to “observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” That I did: for one hour, I turned off my cell phone and computer. I appreciated the double meaning tucked within the word “present.” I enjoyed my space in time and the people, food and prayer sitting there with me.

So, too, did I remember. In the Torah, God told us to recall not just the earth’s creation, but also our historic Exodus. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” Moses instructed the wandering Jews. “Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

As I ate my meal last Friday, surrounded by other Jews, all prosperous in a country where our religion cannot cause our deaths, I thanked God. We chorused gratitude for bread and wine in Hebrew prayer, and for the first time I understood the words I chanted. I was not just thanking God for the food in front of me, or for creating the world that bore it; I was thanking Him for the life I lead. I have never suffered enslavement; poverty hasn’t dirtied my skin. Love has never left my side, instead growing beside me in my mother’s womb and holding my hand to this day.

Appreciating the wonders of my simple existence, I thought with pain of all those who lack my ease. I bowed my head for Moses and the Jews he led to the Promised Land. I closed my eyes, respecting the empty stares that replaced Holocaust victims’ sight. I sent a prayer for the children, women and men in war-torn zones, robbed of family and peace, who could use the food on my plate as sustenance for a week.

I only spent an hour at Shabbat dinner, but afterwards I felt more centered and relaxed than I had in days. Amid the ceaseless hustle of New York City, I had found my calm.

It lasted a week. Today, I felt sensations too familiar to me. Stress; fatigue; hints of self-absorption. For the first time, I knew what I needed to do.

I gathered ingredients stored in my dorm’s mini-fridge. The meal I made was modest: a salad with apple, cheese, egg whites, tomatoes and orange peppers on a bed of baby greens. As I chopped my vegetables, I turned off my phone and put it aside. When I finished, I ate my dinner with a friend in our suite’s lounge area. We discussed her 30-mile bike ride, my plans to bake the next day and future school events. For the hour and a half in which I made and ate my food, I felt my ease return. It slipped in with my breath and stayed nestled in my chest, even when I exhaled a laugh. I felt like I was home with my parents again, sitting around the kitchen table, talking about our days and — most importantly — listening.

I attended no services and said no prayers. But in that meal, I practiced Shabbat as piously as my ancestors. I observed; I remembered; my peace restored itself.

The word “Shabbat” comes from the Hebrew letters Shin-Beit-Tav, which mean “to cease,” “to end” or “to rest.” Observing that pause with sincerity at last has taught me why Shabbat — more than even Yom Kippur — is Judaism’s most precious day. When we take any time, from one hour to 24, to give thanks for love and life, we embody the values that matter most. Humility. Thoughtfulness. Understanding. Compassion. Respect. In doing so, we become closer to God and thus ourselves — even if we’re eating with plastic utensils, sitting in a shaky chair in a college dorm.