Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

We will never forget

Twiggy and Virginia McKenna
Not just a meeting of hand and trunk, a meeting of moments – an echo of that day in London Zoo 30 years ago

Our Founder, Virginia McKenna OBE, reports on her visit to Belgrade Zoo and the plight of their solitary elephant, Twiggy.

September 5th, 2013, another date I will never forget.  The date I visited Belgrade Zoo in Serbia, with Chris Draper, Born Free’s Scientific Researcher (Campaigns), and  Dr Rob Atkinson, former head of animal welfare at the RSPCA and, for two years, Director of the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary.  Why were we there?  Because here was one of the over 40 solitary elephants held in zoos and circuses in Europe.

We are highlighting, in memory of the elephant Pole Pole, the tragic and senseless existence endured by these social, family animals.  Wasting their lives away to satisfy the ambition of zoo directors and the brief curiosity of zoo visitors.

Belgrade Zoo (also cynically called ‘Good Hope Garden’) has a solitary female Asian elephant called Twiggy, who was captured from the wild at one year old.  She first of all came to Britain where she was shuffled between five zoos in a period of ten years.  I understand that she attacked keepers here (and in the Netherlands Zoo in Amersfoort), and when she briefly lived at Glasgow Zoo she was chained.  (I have a strange feeling that I might have seen her there, as when I visited the zoo many years ago I peered through a little window in a wall of the elephant house, and inside was a dim shape of an elephant.  A memory still with me).

She came to Belgrade in 1990.  Twenty three years ago.  For the last seventeen she has been completely alone.  This is one of the oldest zoos in Europe.  There are questions we need to ask the zoo’s authorities: ‘Do you really think it is humane to keep an elephant solitary for 17 years?  Should you not understand something about the nature of the animals you keep captive?

Do you not think that loneliness is enough of a price to pay?  Would it not be kinder to

  1. Provide some shade? 
  2. a pool to bathe in?
  3. a dustbath?
  4. some logs to push around to alleviate the tedium?
  5. a tall log as a scratching post? 

Oh, and as for indoors quarters, is the tiny, damp concrete cell a place that any creature should be asked to spend the night time hours – or even nights and days during cold winter weeks?’

I watched Twiggy for a long while.  She stood on the concrete path that bordered the featureless short-grassed compound (a cosmetic touch one could say, to make visitors think what a nice areas she had).  Then she slowly wandered about, looked briefly through the door of the ‘elephant house’ and then came towards me.  I talked to her, said her name and told her I wished I could save her and give her a better life.  I held out my hand.  She stopped.  Then slowly she lifted out her trunk and stretched it towards me.  It was not only a meeting of hands, it was a meeting of moments – an echo of that day in London Zoo 30 years ago when Pole Pole reached out across the moat to touch Bill’s and my hands.  It was quite unbearable.  And now, as I write, I am at home. Twiggy is still there.

Let us not forget, amidst the horrors of elephant and rhino poaching that, in captivity, life for these wonderful animals can also be hell – ‘Hopeless Garden’ I would call it.

A wolf surrounded by concrete
A wolf surrounded by concrete
A despairing bear
A despairing bear

And so to the rest of the Zoo.  It is tiny.  17 acres.  It holds 2,000 animals and 270 species.  Even the numbers defy belief. There are one or two attempts at ‘improvement’.  Two white tigers live in separate enclosures – with some rocks, shrubs and grass.  As do four white lions.  I have seen worse, but I can’t really say that about most of the rest.  The solitary, magnificent lion roaring his lonely message to the high wall of his cracked concrete enclosure – a message never to be answered.

An uncountable number of wolves, most with terrible mange, one with an open head wound and some with empty water troughs (I managed to get one filled up) – all on concrete.  Barbary sheep with overgrown feet (one displaying stereotypic behaviour, as did a honey badger).  A young solitary giraffe, birds in cages, painfully thin horses, on concrete, eating their own faeces.  And great apes.  What was that heap of rags on the concrete floor – my God, it is an orang-utan.  Forgive us for we know not – or is it care not – what we do.  The female lies in a metal basket on the wall, fiddling with a piece of nylon mesh.  The chimp just sits and looks.  The snakes are beautiful, coiled in an empty water bowl or in their very small stone, glass-fronted boxes – resplendent with a painted backdrop of wilderness.  Nothing lives except the snake.

I could go on but I think the picture is clear.  I leave you with the image of four flamingos indoors in a small room.  They are trying to drink from the floor on which there is no water – why are they there?  Possibly because some building work is going on nearby.  Why have they no water?  That I can’t guess.  We complained about this when we left.  Oh, and I mustn’t forget the Jungle cat sitting in a 1 meter cage built into a wall.  No, I mustn’t forget any of this or any of these extraordinary, fascinating, innocent, tragic prisoners that we reduce to objects so we can display them, own them, control them.

Chris, Rob and I never will. I promise.  Nor will any of us at Born Free.  We will continue to do everything we can to help them and so many other innocent souls held behind the bars.

Virginia McKenna OBE
Founder & Trustee

What was that heap of rags on the concrete?
What was that heap of rags on the concrete?
Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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