Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 23, 2012

Documentary takes aim at elephant handling

Filmmakers: Better ways than fear, abuse


TRAVERSE CITY — Jeff Boucher has shot dozens of films, from a documentary about the weird and wacky culture of morel mushrooming to TV reality show pilots about Vietnam paramedics, Tijuana police officers and Afghanistan bomb squads.

But nothing has been as personal as his current project, a documentary tentatively titled "Elephant in the Room."

The film examines the handling of elephants (and other animals) in zoos, circuses and private facilities. One method relies on fear and dominance using bull-hooks and million-volt tasers, he said, the other on positive-reinforcement and trust using food and attention.

"There's a lot of controversy in the (animal) industry," said Boucher, a former Kalkaska resident who now divides his time between the Detroit area, where he owns the Vanguard Media production company, and Elk Rapids, where his sister lives. "Some people think (fear-based training) is the way it has to be done. A lot of these people are well meaning. They say they love their elephants. We just don't agree with them."

"We" includes project partners Thad Lacinak and Angi Millwood, founders and co-owners of Florida-based Precision Behavior, which trains animal trainers around the world in positive reinforcement principles.

"They're leading the way to change from 'free contact' to 'protected contact,'" said Boucher, 51, a graduate of Michigan State University's early video program. In fact, Lacinak was instrumental in transitioning Busch Gardens Tampa, one of the world's premiere animal training programs, from one to the other.

With the free contact method, trainer and elephant share space without barriers and the trainer controls the elephant by inspiring fear with physical threats and aversion training techniques. Currently about half of U.S. zoos and all circuses — including Ringling Bros. — use free contact as a way of training and disciplining animals, according to the Oakland Zoo, the second zoo to abandon the practice.

In Asian countries like Cambodia, where Boucher is filming this week, elephants used in logging, tourism and street begging are routinely struck and stabbed in the sensitive head, mouth and inner ear area by "mahouts" or elephant riders with chains and sharp hooks.

"How they break an elephant is what made my blood boil," said Boucher, referring to a brutal Asian ritual documented in a United Nations report in which handlers "crush" a young elephant's spirit by tying the animal immobile in a cage and then beating it and depriving it of food, water and sleep. "It's just not necessary. You don't have to treat them like that. They're intelligent and gentle."

Not all free contact management is as severe, said Boucher, who is a staunch supporter of good animal facilities and their ability to inspire generations of conservationists, trainers and animal lovers. And many organizations — like Busch Gardens' "sister sanctuary" in Cambodia and the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums — are working to change traditional elephant management methods.

By 2014, all AZA-accredited institutions will be required to practice protected contact, meaning that zookeepers and other elephant care professionals will be required to have a barrier between themselves and the animals at all but very specific times. It also means captive elephants will be protected from abusive trainers.

But the policy won't affect circuses and other private enterprises that use elephants. And a documentary can go only so far in fixing the problem, said Michele Wolf, president of the Traverse City-based nonprofit For Animals, which works to end the abuse and exploitation of animals.

"I'm glad that (Boucher) is doing this to expose the horrific ways that these animals are treated," Wolf said. "The only problem is it's not just these training methods. It's the fact that the animals are being trucked around daily and the poor health care they receive and the diet that they have and the fact that they're not free. They're being forced to perform for the circus' monetary gain. The elephants don't have a choice in the matter. So whether you train them 'compassionately' or with these barbaric methods, it's still the same."

Boucher hopes to educate viewers about both sides of the issue through his film, expected to be completed by spring. He said he's aiming at a balanced documentary that will include interviews with everyone from mahouts, circus trainers and trainers at private facilities to leaders in the positive-reinforcement movement, animal rights organizations, elephant rescue groups and celebrity animal lovers like actress Carolyn Hennesy ("True Blood," "Cougar Town").

It also will include live-action footage of elephant training and care around the world, including at Busch Gardens Tampa and San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, another leader in animal training, and of existing videos of incidents and historical footage.

Now he's trying to raise funds for final on-location filming and post-production editing — some 400 hours of film already have been shot — through the online funding platform Kickstarter. When the film is finished, he plans to shop it at film festivals and animal training conferences, and to entertainment industry executives.

"I would love to see it on National Geographic or HBO or PBS as a one-hour documentary," he said.

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