Elephant in the room

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Schoolgirl's death should spotlight cruelty of animal captivity, experts say


This circus elephant killed an 11-year-old girl in Lao Cai Province. Experts say animals suffer a lot of stress in captivity and should live freely in a sanctuary for the rest of their lives.

There was an empty chair at the weekly meeting of teachers and students at Lao Cai Province's Le Quy Don School on Monday (October 17).

It was meant for 6th grader Nguyen Thao Oanh, who was killed by a circus elephant the previous day.

The sounds of students crying could be heard even as they observed a minute's silence to remember the 11-year-old schoolgirl.

The accident happened at around 3 p.m. on Sunday when Oanh and her friends were watching an elephant from the Vietnam Circus Federation (VCF) used by Troupe No. 3 during their seven-day tour of Lao Cai Town.

The elephant, between 30-40 years old, was chained in the backyard of the provincial People's Committee office.

Seeing others throwing grass, sugarcane and bread to feed the pachyderm, Oanh and a few other children stepped into the enclosure to try and feed the elephant. Some of them tried to tease the creature as well. Oanh picked some grass and held it out for the elephant to eat. The elephant suddenly grabbed Oanh's arm with its trunk, threw her down on the ground and stomped on her.

The mahout retrieved the schoolgirl quickly but she was already dead.

What followed was to be expected. The circus tour was suspended, the elephant taken back to Hanoi the same day to prevent furious residents from attacking it, and a police investigation announced into the death.

Experts said the investigators would basically come to one of two conclusions. They would hold the circus troupe or the staff on duty in responsible, or find that the curious schoolgirl ignored safety warnings.

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But the larger issue is the wisdom, advisability and morality of keeping animals in captivity, an issue that has drawn scant attention thus far, and it is time that the use of animals for circus performances is banned, they added.

Ta Duy Nhan, head of the VCF circus troupes, said there are three circuses that feature animals' performances, including VCF, Ho Chi Minh City Circus and a private troupe in Hai Duong Province, apart from small wandering circuses.

VCF has the largest collection of performing animals at 70, including five elephants and 10 bears.

He said that there are likely "hundreds" of wild animals in captivity that are being used in circus performances nationwide.

"It means there has been no surveillance over breeding of the animals. Any instance of abuse, maltreatment or impairing their health through performances attracts no concern or warning," he said.

Commenting on Oanh's death, Pham Xuan Quang, VCF deputy director, said it was an "unavoidable incident that could not have been foreseen by anyone."

"And anyway, although it is tamed and trained, elephants are animals. And no one can foresee how their nature changes," he told the VietNamNet online newspaper on Monday.

Quang admitted that his people are partially responsible in the case saying the residents had crossed the rope surrounding the elephant's place.

"The elephant is very gentle and has never been aggressive. Maybe it was furious because of changing weather or because some people hid chilies in its food," he said.

"˜Ridiculous' excuse

Robert Fry, campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) a Virginia-based advocate for animal rights, said that the elephant's act resulted from its captivity.

"To blame it on spicy food is bordering on the ridiculous as elephants have a history of trampling people to death in circuses, which sadly Oanh's untimely death illustrates," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"When you place an animal in captivity, the physical and mental frustrations often lead to abnormal, neurotic and even self-destructive behaviors."

He said Vietnam should ban all performing animals in government sponsored circuses and roadside acts to prevent similar tragic incidents in the future.

"Around the world, zoos and circuses are realizing that elephants in captivity suffer.  Australia only had one circus elephant left and maybe zoos are closing their elephant exhibits because they realize they can't possibly provide for their wellbeing."

As tamed elephants lose their ability to survive in the wild, Fry said there remains a chance for them to be happy and co-exist with other elephants in an elephant sanctuary.

"Sanctuaries do their best to replicate natural environments, with plenty of free space and no chains in sight. You will also find that tourists flock to the region to see elephants running, playing and, well, acting like elephants," he said.

Oanh is not the first fatality related to circus animals in Vietnam.

Last year, a 13-year old boy was killed by an elephant belonging to Hai Duong Province's Sao Mai Circus in the southern province of Dong Nai. The accident happened around 1 p.m. on April 10, prior to a performance at a stadium in Bien Hoa Town.

Pham Xuan Tin and several friends found an elephant chained to a truck inside a local stadium at around noon and sneaked in to tease the elephant by throwing stones and pulling its tail.

The upset animal, weighing more than two tons, tried to attack them with its trunk. Tin failed to run away in time and the elephant grabbed him and flung him to the ground twice. He suffered brain injuries and died on the way to hospital.

In other cases, several children have been attacked and bitten by monkeys in zoos or at home and suffered serious injuries.

Referring to the elephant that killed Oanh, VCF deputy director Pham Van Xuyen said it will continue to perform because it was "not at fault."

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