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Under the Radar DVD of the Week: 'An Apology to Elephants'

Dennis King Published: October 21, 2013

This week, the oddest DVD to appear on release lists is:

“An Apology to Elephants”

While “Dumbo” gives us a cute peek at some of the hardships endured by circus elephants, that sanitized Disney fairy tale largely ignores the cruel realities that actual pachyderms have faced throughout the tragic history of their interaction with humans. “An Apology to Elephants (due out on DVD) addresses that long-running tragedy with single-minded passion.

This too-brief HBO documentary – produced and narrated by Lily Tomlin (who won a primetime Emmy for her voiceover work) – pulls no punches as it lays out a sordid history of the treatment of elephants in the world’s circuses and zoos. Beginning with a brief but concise insight in elephants’ elaborate social order, their lifelong mating habits, their intelligence and keen sensitivity, the film quickly cuts to the cruel “training” methods employed in turning these magnificent creatures into lumbering entertainment pawns.

The use of bullhooks and whips to instill fear and obedience, to subdue the animals’ spirits and force them to perform tricks is especially harrowing and sad to watch. Additionally, the film points out, humans have poached African elephants for their irony tusks and destroyed their natural habitats to the point that the entire species now faces the danger of extinction.

For the most part, the doc serves as a passionate call to action (“The elephants need our help,” Tomlin exclaims), and it makes no effort o balance the debate with information from zoo or circus officials. It does, however, briefly note some recent community backlashes against circuses and some compassionate efforts, particularly by The Oakland Zoo and the Performing Animals Welfare Society, to push for fundamental changes and humane practices in treatment of elephants in captivity.

“An Apology to Elephants is rated PG and runs 40 minutes. It’s being released by HBO.

- Dennis King