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– She is frustrated, bored and sad

mars 15, 2013

– Baba is trying to tell us that she is frustrated, bored, sad and not happy at all. She would greatly like to have company of other elephants and be in a large open space where she can walk, feed and swimm when she likes. She would like to live the normal life of an elephant and not have to stand on her hind legs or walk in cicles in a circus arena and then spend her whole day locked up, says Dr. Marion Garaï, chairperson of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group (ESAG) in South-Africa.

Foto: Inge Sellevåg

The blog «The World of Baba» filmed on video the 40 year or so female Indian elephant Baba (previously named Baby) while she visited the suburb of Aasane in Bergen, Norway April 2, 2012 with the Norwegian Circus Merano. It was early afternoon on a cold April day and Baba was staying in a tent in the circus backyard. Wind and snow was blowing outside, with the spring sun peeping through occasionally. She was standing on concrete ground with approximately 50 square meters of space to move.

I stayed with Baba in the tent for about an hour. Most of the time she was standing behind the fences (probably electrified) swaying from side to side with her head and trunk, now and then taking a step forward or backward. She seemed totally lost in her own mental world. This behaviour is known as stereotypic behaviour and generally is considered indicative of poor animal welfare. I contacted the European Elephant Group (EEG) and was recommended to forward my video footage to Dr. Marion Garaï, who has served as scientific consultant for EEG.

– She is typically stereotyping, even while feeding, Marion Garaï wrote having in an email having viewed the videos. She assessed an African elephant named Mausi for EEG and for practical reasons had to use video footage. Mausi suffered after a long life in circus and unfortunately died before help arrived. Here you can read Marion Garaï’s assessment.

She has absolutely no reservations assessing Baba from the videos, since Baba was showing typical stereotypic behaviour: – Any elephant specialist will immediately know that she weaves even after eeing only a few minutes and that this is a sure sign of bad keeping conditions. A normal, happy elephant which is kept busy, has space, can socialise and feed whenever it likes does not stereotype at all, Marion Garaï wrote:

– Stereotypic behaviour is indicative and typical for animals kept under poor conditions, insufficient space to move, lack of social parnters, nothing to keep them busy and being chained. Weaving in elephants (a type of stereotypic behaviour) does not occur in the wild or in an adequate holding facility such as safari park. There they have a large social group and are kept busy all the time and have space to roam and are never chained. Weaving is a last resort of frustration, much like the rocking in humans that are confined in psychatric wards. It expresses helplesness, says Marion Garaï and suggests a possible neurobiological explanation:

– The only way to avoid total madness is by stereotyping.

«The elephant and human brains show much in common, especially in the cortico limbic structures, which is the seat of emotions. The structural similarities are mirrored in behavioural patterns. Elephants have insight, language, emotions, pesonalities, even culture. Elephants can get post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Keeping an elephant confined in a small space with nothing to do and no social partner tantamounts to imprisoning a human in social isolation in a small cell. The only way to avoid total madness is by stereotyping. But it must be said, that elephants that do weave so much and have been subjugated to performing in the circus, are alredy broken in spirit and mind. Social isolation has done the rest and Baba is a very very poor elephant».

In this video Baba tries to get the attention of two workers coming into her tent. She smashes her trunk into the plastic ceiling and finally succeeds and get bananas as «reward»: – She is frustrated as she cannot get to the keeper, who is fixing something and she hits the plastic roof, then begs for food. She is clearly very aware of the wires, which I assume are electrified. Her enclosure is very small, and I assume the plastic walls and roof are against the wind and cold, but this does not allow her to see anything. There is nothing for her to do, says Marion Garaï.

– This is a coping strategy.

– Sterotypies have been described as abnormal coping strategy in bad housing conditions, she adds: – They are developed in a motivational conflict situation, out of boredom, and born of frustration when an animal cannot reach its goal, e.g. cannot get to a social parter, cannot walk because of chains, cannot get to food when hungry because of housing restriction or chains, and many many more. My guess would be that elephants ‘weave’ to ease discomfort, frustration, etc. and that this is a coping strategy, the only way out without going mad, This of course shows that there is something very wrong in the keeping methods!

Marion Garaï also has viewed videos of Baba performing in the ring, posted on the YouTube. – The performance is pathetic and ridiculous to say the least, she says: – Turning round in circles on a bench. The lady wielding the stick and pretending to be very imporant and showing off. She does nothing else but show Baba the stick which she obviously used during training, otherwise it would not be necessary to use it.

– I would not be surprised if she eventually gets arthritis.

This video was filmed in Steinkjer, Norway in May 2012. In other videos it is seen that Baba has problems placing her hind legs on the bench and cannot get up, the lady beating her legs with the stick. – This is an outdated practice which damages the joints, as elephants are too heavy to stand on two legs. Males do it during mating, but rest the font legs on the females back. Baba is rather heavy for an Asian elephant, as she does not get sufficient excercise, so all the more weight to place on her joints. I would not be surprised if she eventually gets arthritis, Garaï writes.

Foto: Fredrikstad Blad

This picture was taken by the Norwegian newspaper Fredrikstad Blad before the opening show when Baba visited Norway for the first time in 2003. Her owner and trainer Adriana Folco Althoff commands her to sit on a bench to pose for the photographer. The newspaper arranged a competion for their readers to guess the weight of Baba. The right answer was three tons. Imagine the strain this position puts on Baba’s body.

– On the photo the eye of Baba is clearly visiable and it shows she is frightened, wide open and the white visible. Whether she is frightenend by the trick, the stick (ancus) the lady is holding or something else in the audience, I cannot tell. She certainly has negative experience with the ancus, or she would not do such an unnatural trick! Very young elephant may take up similar positions when they are playing and tumbling over each other. They may also sit shortly before lying down, Garaï comments.


For a moment Baba she stops her «weaving», look at me and then continues to sway from side to side. It’s a strange situation. Is she just judging a stranger, wondering what he is doing there ? Then she moves backwards in the tent, lost in her own mental world. It’s a sad sight. In a couple of hours she is once again due to enter the ring, performing her ridiculous, undignified tasks for the so-called amusement of humans.

– I feel very sorry for Baba, both because she is in a poor state of mind and because she is living under poor conditions, says Marion Garaï. Whether Baba suffers a deeper trauma/PTSD is not for her to say. Neuroscience is not her area of scientific competence. Still a psychological/psychiatric state of mind is involved in the stereotypic behaviour displayed by Baba, Garaï states and points to neurological research done the last decades, particularly by the American psychologist and author Gay Bradshaw.

Text : Inge Sellevag

Related stories:

– This has to stop !
– We are glad to help Baba.
– The training of circus elephants is brutal in the extreme.
A brief history of Baba.

7 kommentarer
  1. this is not natural,stop torturing this sweet animal,this i abuse,let her free

  2. I feel so sad for Baba, I hope she will retire soon and have other elephants as her family and friends. Love for the Netherlands, Bo

  3. please save her, while she has some years left….it brakes my heart to sea and read this. No animal schould be suffering ! Especially not for ‘fun’ for stupid humans.

  4. Susanna permalink

    is really very sad. please , he needs to walk and be with other elephants

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  1. Mattilsynet og det umuliges kunst | Babas verden – om elefanter i sirkus

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