Just An Accident

Um, well, not exactly. I hate seeing stuff like this; it’s almost always some well-intentioned but clueless schmoe, or a semi-clueless newbie. In this case, it was a veterinarian who sold his practice three years ago to establish an elephant sanctuary. He should’ve stuck to dogs and cats.

56 year-old Jim Laurita doubtless meant well, but he was probably a better vet than elephant handler.

Laurita sold his private veterinary practice in 2011 to create the organization and took in two elderly and disabled performing elephants, Rosie and Opal.

He called the organization “Hope”, and he probably figured that since he was so enamored of the two Asian cows, everything would be fine. That’s almost inevitably fatal. It’s rather like jumping off a forty story building and saying “So far, so good” as you pass each floor. The end result is generally the same. And sorry, folks – it’s no accident.

People always call these things an accident, but they aren’t. They’re opportunistic occurrences. 

Over the years, I fielded a number of calls from reporters about such incidents, and as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, they’re going to ask whether it was an accident. In a word, no. The elephants know exactly what they’re doing.

It takes years to establish a solid relationship with elephants, assuming that you ever manage it at all. In most cases, the decedent was either inexperienced and overconfident, or believed that affection conquers all. It doesn’t. Laurita was all of that; three years or less is hardly enough time to establish that relationship. He thought he had it because he really cared, but he was wrong.

Back in 1993, I got a call from a reporter in central Florida. A 25 year-old keeper at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa was escorting an Asian cow from their barn to a demonstration area when, as the reporter put it, “She slipped, or tripped, or somethin’ and the elephant, why she squashed her like an ol’ bug!”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” I replied.

“Do ya think it was an accident, like she just didn’t know her own strength?”

Like I said, they always ask that. Bet on it.

Once again, it boils down to inexperience and unwarranted confidence. It’s almost always that way. A decade before, during the course of a professional visit to Chester Zoo in the U.K., I filmed another young man interacting with an Asian cow, She had a pair of short (of course) but fairly sharp tushes, and as he turned toward me, she dropped her head, striking him briefly on the top of her head with her right tush.

When I inquired, he commented that she does that accidentally sometimes. This is all on videotape. I told him that in my view, that was no accident; he assured me that it was. Two weeks later, he was dead; the top of his skull neatly center-punched by her tush.

Also, some months following my return stateside, another young man I’d met after giving a presentation at a Port Lympne meeting was taken out.

In 1984, Mark Aitken, 22, a keeper at Port Lympne, was killed when an Indian elephant crushed him against railings.

His supervisor was kind enough to call in order to break the news and to discuss the incident, though of course it was two a.m. our time; they had only just discovered it, and he was understandably distracted. Notice that they all have something in common: they’re generally inexperienced, confident, and in most cases, young.

This latest is an aberration only in the age department.

That people care about elephants and want to help them is an admirable quality, but it often leads to tragedy because they never took the time (or had the time, or lacked the capacity) to fully research their behavioral biology, to develop the ability to “read” an individual animal, and to develop the skills necessary to live safely among them.

Operant conditioning and behavior capture are your friends.

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About maxredlines

experience: biology, zoology, psychology. authored/co-authored papers appearing in peer-reviewed scientific journals, as well as numerous professional proceedings. authored articles appearing in computer-oriented publications. featured in publications ranging from books to New Yorker magazine to television.
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2 Responses to Just An Accident

  1. lectorconstans says:

    Maybe people who want to go into elephant care should first go through several years of mahout training. I suspect the entry-level duties might not be appealing. And the pay isn’t all that good.

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