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Making Nature exhibition

Making Nature is an exhibition I recently visited at the Wellcome Galleries in Euston. It provides an intriguing look at the evolving relationship between humans and nature.

Though I can’t say that I related to every part of the exhibition, I would recommend it as a welcome introduction to considering humans and their place (or rather, perceived place) within the natural world.

Organising

Separated into four themed rooms, Making Nature attempts to guide visitors through the complex journey of the last century or two that has seen us move from studying nature to ‘creating’ it. The first signpost on that whistle-stop tour was ‘Organising’.

This room was dedicated to early studies and illustrations of nature, including botanical study. It examined where and how nature was placed within those studies, early books and art work, and how that initial work evolved into more formal study of taxonomy.

Taxonomy; the science of classification – in this case of organisms – is truly reflective of how we position ourselves within a kingdom of wildlife (usually we humans place ourselves at the top of such a structure). I think that was the point being made in a darkened alcove of the room, playing video footage and rolling subtitles about humans’ search for intelligent life in outer space, and declaring that we should look a little closer to home; in parrots.

Admittedly, this display seemed a little out of place amongst all the old sketches and classification charts, but it had a good point — that parrots are vocal communicators like humans, and capable of speech, but we’ve only just begun to consider them as a species to communicate with.

This was highlighted by the story of Alex the Grey Parrot and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who conducted research into the cognitive abilities of parrots. Find out more about them here: http://alexfoundation.org

Displaying

The next room looked at our need to ‘progress’ from illustrations to true-to-life displays of animals. Not far from the early ideals of man being at the top of the pyramid of life, the ‘displaying’ room examined various curiosities in man’s attempt to hold, house and recreate nature for our viewing pleasure.

Beginning with Crystal Palace’s famous Victorian dinosaur park — home to stone recreations of the imaginings of what real life dinosaurs would have looked like (created using fossil finds of the time; though not always accurate) — leading on to the more common displays of the day; the diorama display.

The pain-staking details of many diorama displays try to capture the colours, atmosphere and scale of the natural world and have provoked a progression in taxidermy; to aim for ‘action poses’ attempting to recreate natural behaviour. Quite unlike the portrait-style emotionless taxidermy you largely find in the infamous Hall of Mammals at London’s Natural History Museum.
London’s Natural History Museum’s significant architecture was also examined in this room. Originally built as a ‘cathedral to nature‘, the outside of the building was once adjourned with a figure of Adam at the top of its arches, to signify ‘man’s place at the top of the kingdom’. The biblical figure of Adam no longer remains

Observing

The purpose of displaying is to, of course, allow for observation. As humans we moved from an interest in static displays and illustrations to the desire to observe real life animal behaviour for ourselves. And so comes an examination of the era of the zoological gardens and eventually ‘the zoo‘.

This area of the exhibit examines the early popular attractions of London Zoo, including a once much-admired performing elephant and London’s ‘infamous polar bears’ — immortalised in zoo merchandise such as postcards and plushie toys.
One of the evolutions in the history of zoo that I can never quite get my head around was the conscious movement to irradicate a sense of natural environment from the zoo enclosure. Described in this exhibition as London Zoo‘s movement to champion architecture that ‘contrasted the animals and made them stand out’, this seems like such a dark and misguided interpretation of animal observation to me.

Famous architects were employed to remove nature from the surrounds, which ultimately removes the chance to see animals’ naturalistic behaviour. The very thing the zoo was supposed to provide.

This room made me think about an episode of popular US podcast Radiolab, which examines a period in the late 1970s where zoo architect David Hancocks re-examines a gorilla enclosure after a discussion with renowned gorilla expert Dian Fossey about what the animals’ natural environment would look like. His experiment to bring a naturalistic environment into the gorilla enclosure is considered the first link between zoo enclosure and the mental health of the animal’s inside them (listen to the full episode here).
I was somewhat disappointed that this room didn’t contain any mention of opposition to zoos, or the concrete architectural designs of enclosures like the one shown in the photograph above. This snapshot of a concrete prison, devoid of enrichment and anything that even slightly resembles life in the wild was even available to buy as a postcard in the gift shop. It made me think of Born Free Foundation‘s report on elephant captivity; Innocent Prisoner.

Making Nature‘s insight into ‘observation’ also included a modern-day video about the process of landscaping a zoo enclosure to fulfil the need for animal enrichment, but also for spectators to feel ‘involved’ — as the interviewee put it, “so they can get up close enough to the animals to feel scared”.

Again, I was disappointed that there was no mention of opposition to zoos, as if the exhibition worked on the assumption that we all feel the desire to observe animals in the same way. There was even a video of a sorry-looking tiger kept in house; wandering between bedroom and bathroom, looking in the mirror and yowling. The idea was to try and decide whether the tiger recognised itself in the mirror. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down and watch.

I was also surprised to see that — although there was mention of London Zoo once having a famous performing elephant — there was nothing on circus’ and the history of observing animals in this kind of environment (and once again, a lack of seizing the opportunity to look at both sides of the argument here). It would have been good to examine some of the complexities and mistakes we have made over our history of observing wildlife, as well as simply noting our penchant for seeing animals up close. I added this feedback to the feedback wall at the end of the exhibition.

Making

The final room in the exhibition was probably the most fascinating to me; examining human impact and influence on wildlife; specifically genetic engineering, using animals in laboratories for scientific experiments and testing, and domestication.

Compared to the former examples of ‘making nature’, domestication is one that we have grown so accustomed to that it seems less ‘dark’ and extreme — that is, until I saw it laid out in such a clear and confronting manner. From rows of horses teeth, to colour coded budgies to an examination of the ‘perfect’ white rat, regarded as the desired pet of high society Victorian women; it’s weird to think how much we’ve interfered with nature.
There was also a focus on how we use animals outside of the meat, dairy and clothing industry, such as in the days of using the African Clawed Frog as pregnancy test (for 30 years the frog species was used as the most accurate and efficient pregnancy test! Eighteen of the reptiles were introduced to the US in 1937 for this purpose. If a pregnant woman urinated on a female frog, it would produce eggs within 12 hours; this provided the model for the modern day pregnancy test testing urine).

Although some of how we use animals is incredibly uncomfortable to acknowledge, there were some extremely important examples of how we’ve intervened with nature to help humans live alongside it more effectively — such as modifying mosquitos so that they no longer spread diseases like dengue fever. And then there’s the matter of de-extinction.

I’ve read some fascinating articles in both BBC Wildlife magazine and BBC Earth magazine about scientists developing the technology to harvest DNA from specimens of extinct species and using that to create an embryo to be carried by a similar, surviving species.

Woolly mammoths are always the buzzword when it comes to the topic of ‘de-extinction‘, but as yet the capabilities of growing a mammoth embryo are not sophisticated enough to not require a surrogate mother (female elephants are not large enough for the job). It seems that that may about to change before too long however, after the success of a baby lamb grown for four weeks in an artificial womb.

 In the meantime at least, Making Nature shows us the very real and current project to bring back the passenger pigeon.

Natural History Museums around the world are collecting DNA from their specimens of passenger pigeon to try and gather enough to genetically modify an existing living embryo (presumably that of another species of pigeon). Remarkably, the exhibition included a vial of some of this extracted DNA.

The plaque beside it, written by The Long Now Foundation reads:

“This tiny vial captures an extremely unusual moment in the story of the extinct passenger pigeon. DNA samples are being collected from 19th-century passenger pigeons in museum collections, in order to assemble sufficient genetic diversity to be able to ‘resurrect’ the extinct species. While this project is in its infancy with much uncertainty surrounding it, if successful, the passenger pigeon would be the first species to be recovered from DNA alone.”

Now that truly is making nature!

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Harambe the silverback gorilla and the question of captivity

Every so often, an individual animal comes along, whose plight opens up a big debate concerning how humans react to, interfere with, or ‘manage’ animal welfare.

Last year, it was Cecil the lion; the year before, Marius the giraffe; this week, it’s Harambe the silverback gorilla. For those who missed the story of Harambe (and I suspect you didn’t), the 17-year-old male silverback was shot and killed at Cincinnati Zoo this weekend after a child entered his enclosure, crawling through bushes and falling 15 feet into the gorilla’s moat.

Harambe gorilla and boy

Online footage showed the gorilla moving the young boy through the enclosure’s moat — though there are varying reports as to the nature of this (some news outlets are reporting he dragged the boy through the water, while other suggest he was ‘protecting’ the boy). Of course, without being there, it’s difficult to speculate.

The animal response team tasked with dealing with the situation chose to destroy the gorilla, supported by Cincinnati Zoo Director, Thane Maynard, who confirmed the boy was not under attack, but felt it a ‘life threatening situation’ where the gorilla was ‘agitated’, ‘disoriented’, and ‘behaving erratically’.

Perhaps the reason that so many have hit out at the decision has something to do with the previous publicity that gorilla-human interactions have received. By coincidence, the last article I posted on this blog referenced the gorilla group who infamously interacted with Sir David Attenborough.

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But these weren’t the only gorillas to win the public’s heart, and show a softer side to these strong and powerful beings. Made popular by the rise of YouTube, the 1986 incident in which a five-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo has been viewed literally millions of times!

The gorilla in question, Jambo, is seen gently investigating and apparently comforting the boy:

Fast forward 10 years, to a three-year-old boy falling into the Western Lowland Gorilla Pit at the Brookfield Zoo. (Seems like rather a lot of gorilla enclosures have proven to be a little too accessible over the years!).

This 1996 footage shows a female gorilla named Binti Jua approach the child, lift him into her arms, and carry him to an access entrance where staff could get to him.

 

One of the world’s leading gorilla experts, Ian Redmond OBE, posted online immediately following the incident:

My immediate response to the killing of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, is a deep sense of regret and sadness. Watching the shaky mobile phone video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-36407643, it is clear that the child was understandably frightened and the gorilla understandably stressed, but in the video shown on the BBC News website, Harambe did not attack the child. He pulled the child through the water of the moat, held his hand – apparently gently, stood him up and examined his clothing… but the video does not show the whole incident so I am not in a position to judge. I can imagine the panic of the child’s mother and the fear of the zoo staff. For a man with a gun thinking a child is in danger, it is a tough decision but there were other possible outcomes. In two other incidents where children have fallen into zoo gorilla enclosures (in Jersey and Chicago) neither the gorillas nor the children died.
Aside from the ethical issues of keeping apes in captivity, the key question is: how is it possible – yet again – for a child to gain access to any zoo enclosure? Especially when zoos are primarily a family attraction?

Harambe

To me, this is indeed a huge public safety issue! One that, had the public safety (particularly that of a child) been put at risk elsewhere in the tourism and entertainment industry (I’m thinking theme parks), would have caused mass criticism, a very public court battle and calls to close the place (just look at the bad press Alton Towers received when guests were injured on a rollercoaster ride).

But zoos are so entwined with education that they’re publicly branded as existing ‘primarily for children’s benefit’ and as such, it’s hard to separate them. This is an issue I’ve discussed before, challenging the notion that zoos are ‘a vital tool’ in getting the next generation interested in nature (for those who’d like a more in depth view of the modern day issues with zoos — and probably a more balanced view — I would recommend the BBC2 documentary: Should We Close Our Zoos?)

Zoos and education are presented to us hand-in-hand

Zoos and education are presented to us hand-in-hand

But whether their PR depends on the link with education or not, it’s worth questioning how the security of zoos keeps getting breached? Just last month alone, a Santiago Metropolitan Zoo in Chile killed two of its lions after a man scaled the fence, removed his clothes (which reportedly contained a suicide note) and goaded the animals to attack him (23rd May 2016). Just the day before, a man entered the lion enclosure at Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, India, allegedly to ‘shake hands with the lions‘. Though the man and the lions survived the encounter, he was reported to have been intoxicated at the time.

All this comes after the undeniable, global coverage of Blackfish; the documentary about SeaWorld’s Tilikum the killer whale (or orca), known for having ended the lives of three people, including a man who trespassed on SeaWorld Orlando’s property, apparently evading security to enter the orca tank. When will these locations that house captive animals be recognised as potentially dangerous to the public? It seems that massive security failings are occurring across the globe, and have been for a long time?!

6 ways to appreciate gorillas, without visiting the zoo:

How about some alternatives then, that won’t inadvertently put your family or the lives of animals at risk? Here are my top 5 ways to enjoy watching, feeling close to, and even supporting the conservation of gorillas!

  1. Check out the BBC documentary; Gorilla Family & Me, for which cameraman and filmmaker Gordon Buchanan travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo to spend time with a rare family of Grauer’s gorillas.You’ll get to follow the story of Chimanuka and Mugaruka. For more information on the show and future broadcasts, click here.gorilla family and me
  2. Adopt a gorilla through Born Free Foundation. If you enjoyed the above mentioned documentary, and want to continue being a part of Chimanuka and Mugaruka’s wild story, you can adopt the pair and receive a personalised adoption certificate, a photo of the gorillas, the pair’s full story and regular updates about the gorillas; courtesy of Adopt! magazine. You can even get a cuddly toy gorilla, to help satisfy the need to give the creatures a cuddle! To find out how, click here.adoption pack
  3.  Take virtual tour of the gorillas habitats with vEcotourism.org! Continuing on the story of the Chimanuka group, vEcotours offer an immersive, 360-degree virtual tour of Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Rwanda, where Chimanuka and his family live. They also feature a tour of the Susa Mountain Gorilla Group’s home on the flanks of Mount Karisimbi; this features the last living gorilla from the group that met Sir David Attenborough all those years ago! To take a tour, click hereSusaGroupHeader-1024x512
  4. View a GoGoGorilla art piece. Now, this one might require a bit more work, but seek, and ye shall find! These guys are mostly still planted around businesses and tourist locations in Norwich, and I had a whale of time discovering them all when they were used as an art trail around the city, and then auctioned off to raise funds for the Born Free Foundation and local charity Break. I’m pretty sure this guy still resides at the Norwich City Football Club ground!20130724_202257
  5. Buy a gorilla print. Many thanks to an incredible digital artist, Danielle Adams, who supported my World of Wildlife art exhibition last year, for creating this beautiful piece of gorilla art in memory of Harambe. Prints of this artwork will soon be available, so keep an eye out on her website, www.danielleadamsart.com.Harambe by Danielle Adams
  6. Dine with a gorilla table guest at the Rainforest Café! I absolutely love this place, and it offers a great chance to feel like your in a real forest surrounded by animals… except, they’re all animatronic! But hey, at least you know it means none are going to get hurt! And if any children wander off to go and touch a gorilla, they’re not going to get hurt either! To visit the Rainforest Cafe, click here.

Like this? Read more about Ian Redmond and Gorilla Safari VR here.

What happened when Ian Redmond and David Attenborough reunited?

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Conservation: the cons, count downs and continuations

Unsurprisingly, BBC Wildlife magazine is a favourite of mine.

I’ve long enjoyed the columns and comments from BBC animal activist favourites, such as Simon King, Chris Packham and formerly Bill Oddie.

imageIn the summer, I read the magazine’s list of Britain’s top 50 conservation heroes with much interest and curiosity, furiously researching the names I hadn’t heard yet. I even managed to get my prized copy signed by number 4 on the list, Sir David Attenborough.

imageAttenborough found himself two places behind Chris Packham, who sat in 2nd place. A regular on Springwatch, a vocal opposer of the abuse seen on television shows such as I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here!, and a staunch campaigner against the bird hunting season in Malta, Packham seems to represent a great example for the generation who will eventually step into the giant footsteps of the likes of Attenborough and list-topper Jane Goodall.

imageBut something didn’t sit quite right for me.

In the very same issue, which contained bold statements from Sir David (he suggested that human beings are a plague on the planet), Packham is given an entire page to air the comparatively main stream and highly anti-conservationist view that zoos work well to educate the masses.

Zoos. Work well. To educate the masses?

10410128_321599458004605_7335837426737654323_nAs someone who KNOWS, first hand the damage that zoo environments inflict upon animals and the hard work that organisations such as the Born Free Foundation have to do to reverse just some of less-long lasting psychological effects these creatures are left with (and sadly most of the damage IS long-lasting and irreversible), I couldn’t believe Packham could advocate such things?!

Until I read his admission that his wife runs a zoo.

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Within his own blurb, on the same list that places him as the 2nd greatest conservation hero at present, Chris is quoted as saying “The worst are those putting the ‘con’ in conservation; organisations that care more about blindfolding their members than making a real difference.”

imageWould that not be zoos then, Chris?

I’ve written before about the way that zoos and safari parks are unquestionably entangled with education, and how, perhaps, it’s about time that relationship is subjected to a little questioning after all; and so, I felt that rather than repeat myself, I should shed a little light on where we could be focussing our conservation efforts instead.

Did you know that there is not one sustainable shark fishery on the planet? Why does education not teach us that? I never learned it from a zoo either.

shark fisheryOr that we’ve lost over half Africa’s lions in last 30 years. If we carry on at this rate, the African lion will be wiped out in 35 years.

So what can we do to enhance children’s education that’s not just a trip to the zoo to understand the relative scale of an adult male lion, regardless of environment and lack of opportunity to exercise natural behaviours?

imageTeach the message of Racing Extinction for a start. The documentary is already making its way into classrooms up and down the country, alongside various classroom resources and teachers’ aids, and in my (independent) opinion, that’s progress.

imageSecondly, we could improve schoolchildren’s knowledge of the work that’s being done to counteract some of the problems being faced in the natural world.

Will Travers joined a host of special guests at the London premiere of Racing Extinction last month, and discussed his own involvement in these areas…

This is exactly the kind of thing we could do with starting a conversation on.

Will Travers is the President of Born Free Foundation, which he founded with his mother, actor Virginia McKenna and father Bill Travers 30 years ago, and so his involvement is hands on. But there is also the important fact that everyday people are tackling conservation issues in everyday ways.

IMG_0118Just before Christmas, I joined the final 2015 instalment of the ongoing demonstrations against Taiji Cove.

This time, over a hundred people gathered outside the Japanese Embassy for most of the day and evening of the 18th December, culminating in a Racing Extinction-style building projections, in what could be seen as a call to arms for the next protest.

imageI will be joining this movement on the 16th January, alongside others who feel they want to make a difference (come say hi if you find yourself there – it’s open to anyone!), because the big changes really can start with ‘the little people’.

imageContinuing to look ahead to January and beyond, I will be focusing my attention on studying the concept of “StableCon” (Conversation through Stabilisation), so please keep an eye out for further info on this – perhaps most excitingly, however, I have joined Born Free’s Activate team, so perhaps my writing will begin to have wider impact (one can only hope).

But before I depart to pastures new in 2016; let me leave you with this one thought – A wildlife hero of mine once told me that to make the biggest impact on the issues faced in conservation and the natural world, all we’d need to do is have a conversation. If we talked to three people, and they in turn talked to three people, and each of those three talked to three more people – we could reach the ears of the whole world with 103 conversation starters. Whatever I do in 2016, I hope to be one of those conversation starters… Who’s ready to be one of the other 102?!

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Be the one traveler, long I stood

I believe in journeys.

I believe in journeys because they bring change and challenge and movement.

Journeys bring progress. They bring knowledge and hunger and resilience. Often frustration, always triumph; if you afford yourself such things.

The best journeys are often the journeys you never even knew you were on, until you suddenly find yourself at a crossroads or dramatically changing course. I believe that to be successful on journeys you have to be successful at opening your mind and letting your opinions change. A stubborn journey will likely be a short one.

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I first encountered Sinbad, the miniature lion in his home at Shamwari Game Reserve. Sinbad was at the Julie Ward Centre; a location that I certainly feel some connection with. His legs were stunted in their growth when his teeth were pulled from his gums to make him a more suitable photographer’s prop at the French zoo he was rescued from. He couldn’t eat properly without them.

DSC_1003But Sinbad the miniature lion grew. Not physically. He was given the opportunity to adapt from a confined cell in a zoo to a lush enclosure in South Africa; the closest to the wild that the small lion can possibly survive in. And he thrives.

You see, it’s easy to appreciate nature when we watch it on the television. We admire it when Sir David Attenborough so beautifully narrates the journeys that creatures great and small, land and sea, make in the wild – but it’s easy to overlook the journeys of animals in captivity.

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 “Animals need zoos to survive. Zoos are a vital tool in getting the next generation interested in nature and they provide the best means of studying animals.”

Zoos and education are presented to us hand-in-hand

Zoos and education are presented to us hand-in-hand

This is a viewpoint I hear often, and one I, myself, had previously subscribed to. Earlier in the year, I penned a post about my opinion of zoos and captivity; to clarify my standpoint to myself, as much as anyone who may find themselves reading my incessant typing! I concluded with an opinion much in-line with the afore mentioned.

But I’ve been on somewhat of a journey since then.

About this time last year, I felt that my blog platform had run its course. There were other matters to focus on, and as my number of views dwindled, I knew whatever audience I was writing for had other matters to focus on too.

But in May, I found myself back on a pathway I thought I’d ventured away from – journeys can have a funny way of doing that, you see.

In Born Free Foundation’s 30th anniversary year, I found an opportunity to reconnect with my reasons and motivations for supporting the charity by attending some of their one-off events: and what wonderful, educational eye-openers they were. I am beyond grateful for the opportunities I have had – thoughtful discussions with lifelong idol Virginia McKenna and long-time role model Pollyanna Pickering, and the long in-depth chats with Born Free President Will Travers about the future of conservation that have gone on to reshape my thinking. To put that simply, I no longer have an internal argument as to whether the educational benefits of zoos justify the isolation and unnatural surroundings of a captive environment: through research, discussions and uncompromised honesty, I now see clearly that they don’t.

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At the same time as reaching these realisations, this year I have found myself a little lost at times while finding my way onto the correct career path.

But after nearly taking the chance on a blogging and marketing internship in Malawi, I opted out after reaching the final three in the process, because another offer reached me: a full time, paid and permanent position at Discovery Education UK.

dcimissionstatementHaving worked for Discovery Education UK before, I knew this was a huge and wonderful opportunity for me, and this time I have a more hands-on role in delivering news to primary school children.

There is something quite wonderful about having a job that helps to educate children by giving them the tools and knowledge to discover their own thoughts and opinions on things happening in the world, and when that includes case studies on stories such as isolated elephant Mali, I know that somehow, I have found my way.

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The Elephant in the Room

To me, the best kind of an education comes from something that moves you. Something that stays with you long after you first discover or encounter it, and leaves you wanting to take action. Sometimes that action may simply be learning more, delving into this newfound knowledge further, to see what other unknowns may be uncovered. And other times, it leaves you wanting to change the world.

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#Elefilm

That’s exactly how I felt when I finished watching student-produced documentary The Elephant in the Room.

Providing a deeply moving look at the plight of elephants kept in solitary zoo conditions (an issue I already have an opinion on), the confronting images of The Elephant in the Room, made in association with Born Free Films, echo the critically acclaimed scenes of Blackfish – and are certainly as harrowing.

Gaining internet popularity under the hash tag: #Elefilm, the 13 and a half min long documentary, narrated by Born Free Founder Virginia McKenna OBE, explores the damaging industry of zoos in the context of what we now know about elephant psychology and behaviour – and the findings highlighted are heart-breakingly deserving of the 13 minutes it takes to watch the film, and the challenging questions that the 20,000 people who have already viewed the short documentary must have been left asking themselves, about what we are doing in the name of tourism and misinterpreted ‘education’.

If education is about truth, as I believe it to be, then The Elephant in the Room is far more of an education than looking through the cold metal bars of a concrete-floored pen, at an animal that displays none of its natural behaviours and instincts. If #Elefilm has left me with anything, it’s the realisation that these kinds of environments will never truly teach us anything about what wildlife is really like.

Belonging to the same herd

Inspired by a Born Free Foundation report entitled, ‘Innocent Prisoner’, the group of nature-loving film makers behind the documentary, traveled from the UK to California in the USA, Romania and Norway to complete filming, drawing upon the knowledge and experiences of experts working within several world-altering charities – albeit if these organisations are altering the world just one animal, and one changed opinion, at a time. Whilst these locations and sources of education are ones I hugely respect, one of the most exciting discoveries about this film, on a personal level, was that it was created as a University of Hertfordshire Film – meaning the team behind it were students of the very university I graduated from last year! How exciting to learn that this highly impassioned and powerful project could come from such close proximity! I caught up with the documentary’s Producer & Assistant Editor Amanda Gardner and Director & Editor Tariq Chow to find out more about the motivation behind the film …

What was your inspiration behind making the film?

Every member of our team has a strong passion for animals – together we had already completed another film called ‘Catastrophe’ which discussed the problems cat shelters are currently facing in the UK. At the start of the pre-production process, we came across an article ‘Innocent Prisoner’ on the Born Free website, which talked about there being over 40 elephants living on their own in captivity across Europe. We decided that we would make this the main topic of our film, as we felt that it was an issue that not many people were currently aware of.

What kinds of processes were involved? Were there any particular highlights for you?  

The main processes involved in making The Elephant in the Room were locating and interviewing specialists and experts in the animal welfare field and travelling abroad to four different locations to capture footage – UK, Romania, Norway and California USA. We also spent a lot of time and detail on writing the narration, editing the clips together and creating the soundtrack and animation. One of the main aims of the film was trying to convey the correct message to the audience in regards to how we can help these elephants living in solitary confinement. One of the main highlights of filming The Elephant in the Room was travelling to America to visit the ARK 2000 Sanctuary, where elephants have been re-homed from zoos and circuses to live out the rest of their lives in peace.

Were there any particular challenges in creating the documentary?

One of the main challenges in making the film was trying to choose the most poignant footage to use in order to convey the correct message to the audience.

How did you manage to get Born Free Foundation on board?

We managed to get the Born Free Foundation on board through a series of processes, including sending over a proposal which discussed the main outline of the film and also talking through our ideas and reasons for creating the documentary. We were extremely fortunate to get the Born Free Foundation on board – we could not have made The Elephant in the Room without their advice and support.

What kind of successes has the film had since completion?

Since its completion, The Elephant in the Room has won the ITV award at the University of Hertfordshire’s Vision’s Festival. It has also received over 12,000 views on Youtube and 5,000 views on Vimeo. We have also held a private screening of our film at the Warner Bros. De Lane Lea sound studios, attended by representatives from the film industry, the national press and the animal welfare industry. Virginia McKenna OBE was also in attendance, alongside her son and President of the Born Free Foundation, Will Travers.

What are your hopes and aims for it here on in?

We hope the message will spread further in regards to the problems of elephants living in solitary confinement. In would be fantastic for my team and I to develop the film into a feature length documentary.

Image courtesy https://www.facebook.com/elefilm

Screening of The Elephant in the Room. Image courtesy:
https://www.facebook.com/elefilm

Marching towards a common goal

I couldn’t finish our chat without asking perhaps the most important question of all, that surely brings together the whole purpose of making the film, the charity work it is highlighting and of course the reason for the existence of this blog itself. What do you hope is the future for elephants? Amanda tells me the hope is that all elephants living in zoos, particularly those living in solitary confinement, can move to a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives in peace, and that no more elephants are taken from the wild in order to live in a zoo or circus.

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Still from the documentary. Image courtesy elefilm.eu

Important info:

The Elephant in the Room is in association with Born Free Films and is narrated by Virginia McKenna OBE. Crew – Amanda Gardner (Producer & Assistant Editor), Tariq Chow (Writer, Director & Editor), Matthew Buckner (Sound, Music & Animation) and Emma Peirson-Hagger (Camera & Lighting). To watch the film and for more information, please visit; www.elefilm.eu

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A lifelong love of animals

After a busy few weeks in the grips of Summer holidays and mid summer magazine deadlines, I’ve accidentally found myself re-visiting where my passions and influences stemmed from.

I’ve been looking over old work and ways in which I’ve incorporated my passion for conservation into my passion for media communication, which I’ve found myself doing for the purpose of organising a series of photos that I hope depict the nature of zoos. It’s been a fascinating experience of reflecting, and I’ve come to the conclusion that when you’re an ambitious person, you can become so focused on making steps forward that you can forget to take a look back once in a while , to remember how far you’ve come and why…

Cheetah Conservation

I think the seeds of my ambition were sown when I was around the age of 14. Somehow ideas of being a journalist (or as I quite arrogantly like to position myself; an educational story teller) had entered my head at a very young age – perhaps from the days where my nan had taken me down to her local newsagent-cum-grocers just down the road from her front door, handed me a couple of coins and told me I could pick any one of the “comics” to take home.

I’d stand for ages, fussed over by the gentle old couple that ran the little independent store; just staring at all the colourful glossy pages until the two pound coins in my palm were warm by the time the decision was made and I finally handed them over. I usually opted for a Disney-owned children’s magazine called Big Time, in case you were wondering.

But it was at the age of 14 that the first of my own articles was published. I rushed into WHSmith the same morning that the magazine hit the shelves, only a humble regional magazine, but a magazine that I could open up and feel the buzz of seeing my own name, nonetheless. And the article topic? A local wildlife park.

A featured photograph of a serval critiqued in Photography Monthly magazine followed, and I was hooked.

To add to this, I’ve also recently unearthed my old A-Level photography project – based on the concept of freedom. I think exploring the thought processes of my 17 year old self, just months away from making my well-planned trip to Shamwari is teaching me that my passions, interests and ambitions have long been mixed and entwined, and – hopefully – long will they be.

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I’m sure there will be more to follow on this musing – there’s probably some great purpose for re-connecting with this thought, and may some divine intervention will come along to prove that, but in the mean time – here’s that series of photos I mentioned:

Through Captive Eyes.

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I suppose it all starts with zoos…

Bright green eyes stare out from a neatly tangled criss-cross of metal. Green metal. Green like grass, leaves, trees.

The view is skewed from those eyes. A picnic bench, a wooden sign with a map printed on it, two adults with a child and a push chair.

Once fierce , those eyes are now shrouded in dull frustration – just a flicker of wild in them – a flicker when a lump of meat thuds on the floor at a scheduled hour; or maybe when some small, unfortunate finch squeezes between the criss-cross of green metal.

sad leopardI suppose it all starts with zoos.

A zoo where the lions used in the filming of the Born Free film were sent to spend the rest of their days. A zoo where a leopard called Kuma lived in squalid conditions. A zoo where a gentle giant, mentally disturbed from loneliness and isolation (in war zones, we’d call this torture tactic ‘solitary confinement’), reaches out his trunk in affection to touch a face he recognises after 13 years.

Pole-Pole-at-London-Zoo-with-Virginia-and-Bill-c-Daily-Mail-650x500To me, visiting zoos with my family as a child are some of my fondest memories.

Zoos taught me about how incredibly diverse the natural kingdom is; that there is a huge world out there filled with magnificent and exotic creatures and, perhaps ironically, that they should be protected and respected.

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It was perhaps a hard pill to swallow then when I became a supporter of the Born Free Foundation and discovered that the animals they were rescuing were not just privately owned trophy pets, kept in rooftop cages at some European tourist spot I’d probably never come near to encountering – they were coming from places that I associated with animal conservation, education and the ‘safe havens’ that allowed me the chance to encounter these animals up close, in the living flesh. They were coming from zoos.

It’s hard for me to align myself with the position that every zoo is a torturous hell hole that no good can come from. But I certainly feel that way about a few. A disposition that’s only been strengthened by my time at Shamwari Game Reserve.

I have seen and known zoos to be involved in some fantastic conservation efforts: breeding animals and re-introducing the offspring to the wild. And I’ve watched for year’s the fundraising efforts of one of my local zoos – Africa Alive – in its plight to support the Botswana Cheetah Conservation Project.

HowToHelpIf an animal is saved from extinction by the work of zoos, then that is of course a success only to be heralded. But if that species exists only in captivity as a result, then has it been saved at all?

It’s confusing journey to be on; to love animals, to want to be around them to appreciate their beauty and power, to oppose denying them the opportunity to live wild and free. Because being around them often contradicts the scenes of freedom at Shamwari that are etched in my memory.

A scene from Shamwari Game ReserveIroncially, David Attenborough, face of nature to many, began his television days capturing animals to be put into captivity.

BBC series, Zoo Quest, aired between 1954 and 1963. The premise of this programme was to ‘collect’ animals from tropical locations to be introduced to London Zoo. An accepted practise at the time, the show now depicts everything that conservationists; including Sir David Attenborough himself, stand against.

David-Attenborough-Zoo-QuestIt was shortly after this series aired; 1969 that London Zoo would play another significant part in changing the attitudes of conservation…

After making the iconic Born Free film in 1966, husband and wife stars Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers filmed a documentary about an orphaned wild elephant called Pole Pole. Pole Pole was a gift to London Zoo – a ‘transaction’ that Virginia and Bill did their best to prevent.

Fourteen years later, an exhausted, disorientated and chronically lonely Pole Pole collapsed in London Zoo and was destroyed.

6ca9ca3c43But not before a visit from Bill and Virginia made a profound impact.

During her time at the zoo, Pole Pole’s behaviour was unlike that of a wild elephant: in her distressed state she swayed and paced and acted erratically.

Despite being driven mad by her barren concrete enclosure, Pole Pole broke hearts with her affection towards Virginia and Bill when, thirteen years after they filmed her in Kenya, she recognised the pair and in a tragic, tender, desperate moment; gently reached out to touch Bill’s palm with her trunk. Her death one year later devastated the couple.

This profound moment became the start of something that would bring hope to animals living in these such conditions. The Born Free actors, together with their son Will Travers, launched Zoo Check – an initiative that would later be named the Born Free Foundation – in 1984.

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Zoo Check would monitor the conditions of animals kept in captivity and intervene when an animal was found neglected and distressed.

Like both Virginia McKenna OBE and Sir David Attenborough, whose early careers and passion for conservation stemmed from zoos in some way; another of my wildlife heroes: Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin also entangled his passion for conservation with his now infamous Australia Zoo – a thought I’ve already chewed over on this blog.

575324_109748772523009_1980832430_nWith my conservation ‘teachers’, if you will, mixing rehabilitation and breeding programmes of zoos into their plight to conserve wild species, is it possible to advocate the irradiation of zoos? I expect not.

As photos emerged in March of young giraffe Marius being butchered in front of crowds of zoo visitors (including an audience of children) at Copenhagen Zoo, there was national outrage. Marius had been offered a place at a Yorkshire Zoo, but had met his end on a cold pavement slab, his limbs removed in front of a crowd of tourists and the juicy bits fed to the lions.

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While the world of social media went up in arms over little Marius (sadly with – seemingly – all the effectiveness of a storm in a tea cup), I couldn’t help but feel even more disheartened that a pride of lions at Longleat Safari Park were destroyed in the same month and hardly anybody seemed to turn a hair in comparison. And what of the escaped wolves of Colchester Zoo that had to be shot outright for fear of them causing harm?

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These things are rarely black and white.

They are spotted, patterned, feathered or fury – they are individual animals with individual personalities and individual needs that must be looked at as individual cases.

There are flaws; there are positive and negatives of zoos. There is a need to think and understand and critically evaluate the places that house wild animals; to look at the conditions they are kept in and the work that is going on behind the scenes to educate, to rehabilitate, to give something back to nature and ensure that not a single animal is overlooked in the process.

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And that’s it – that’s the point of the Born Free Foundation.

I don’t need to declare hate for absolutely everything that zoos stand for, or live hypocritically on this pendulum of allegiance vs angst – we just need to ensure that there will always be a body like the Born Free Foundation’s Zoo Check that will hold anyone keeping animals captive to account, and have the ability to intervene when individual animals so desperately need a voice.

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