The dream of a former caretaker at the Franklin Zoo in New Zealand is finally being realized with the sweet introduction of two elephants, Mila and Mary.
Mila, who is now 41, has spent almost her entire life alone. She was born in Namibia in 1973 and, like many others who find themselves in captivity, was taken from her home and her family shortly after.
Mary is the first elephant Mila has seen in 37 years.
The two meet through a barrier at the San Diego Zoo for the first time.
Mila and Mary’s introduction is as heartwarming as they come, and clearly part of an effort to do what’s best for Mila at this point. However, a more important part of her story is how she got here in the first place and why she spent so much time alone.
After being torn from her family, Mila was moved to a zoo in Honolulu where she was reportedly bullied by other elephants. When she was 4-years-old, Mila was bought by trainer Tony Ratcliffe and flown to New Zealand to join the Whirling Brothers Circus. There she was known as Jumbo and was taught tricks, with the use of a bullhook, that she would be forced to perform for crowds for more than 30 years.
During that time, she spent long periods shackled to a short chain in her trailer where she was observed swaying back and forth, which is a stereotypical behavior of an elephant who is suffering from psychological distress that has never been observed in the wild.
Mila‘s former life in the circus as Jumbo.
For decades she was kept alone, deprived of space, enrichment and the simple companionship of even a single other elephant while she was exploited in the circus.
In 2009, after extensive lobbying by SAFE, Mila was retired and released from the Loritz Circus, which had bought her from Ratcliffe, and sent to the Franklin Zoo, which took on sole responsibility for her care. There, she was able to play in the mud and learned to make her own decisions, while her confidence and health improved.
Tragedy, however, was soon to follow poor Mila. On April 25, 2012, she was involved in the crushing death of Helen Schofield, a veterinarian and operator of the zoo, who had bonded with her and wanted to help her move to a sanctuary in the U.S. where she could live out her days with other elephants.
No one’s sure what happened in Mila’s head the day she grabbed Schofield with her trunk. Some reportedly believe she finally snapped after spending all those years alone in the circus, while a few witnesses speculate she was frightened and acting protectively after being shocked by an electric fence.
While there was some debate about what to do with Mila following the incident, plans to have her moved to the U.S. progressed. In honor of Schofield’s dream of seeing Mila reunited with other elephants, the zoo’s staff and supporters raised $1.5 million to have her transported from New Zealand to the San Diego Zoo in November. She spent the holiday season in quarantine before being introduced to Mary, the herd’s matriarch, this month.
Although some of her advocates are disappointed she ended up at a zoo and not a sanctuary, they are pleased that her days as a performer are over and that she is at least being cared for in the company of her own kind.
While Mila and Mary’s bond grows and she’s introduced to other elephants in California, similar efforts are currently underway to help other elephants who have been left alone, including Tania, who is being kept in solitary at a zoo in Romania, and Lucky, who is being kept alone at the San Antonio Zoo by officials who arrogantly refuse to even acknowledge that might not be best for her.
Hopefully, Mila’s story will serve as a reminder about avoiding establishments that keep these giants in captivity, especially as performers, in addition to raising awareness about the decisions we’re making for those we insist on keeping captive: who comes, who goes, who’s bred, who lives and who dies.
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