Lily Tomlin Speaks Out for Elephants

HBO is offering “An Apology to Elephants.” That’s the name of a documentary premiering on Earth Day – April 22 – at 7 p.m. The film looks at how humans have mistreated elephants: captured, crated to zoos and circuses (where they are roped and prodded with sharp metal “bull hooks” to force them to do tricks), killed by poachers for their tusks. In one tragic incident, Topsy, an elephant kept at Coney Island crushed a man to death—and then was electrocuted by Thomas Alva Edison to demonstrate the dangers of AC electricity. The narrator for the film is the actress Lily Tomlin, who spoke with National Geographic about her love for elephants: “they are among my favorite earthlings.”

You are an elephant activist.

Five years ago I got involved with elephants here in Los Angeles. There was a bull elephant at the zoo that was living a pretty stringent and brutal life. So I got involved because we were trying to free Billy from the L.A. Zoo. I had read a lot about elephants. I had feelings that elephants shouldn’t be in zoos. Probably no animals should, but least of all the big ones, and the elephant is the biggest. What the elephant endures living in captivity became a symbol to me—a very obvious symbol—of all the suffering we perpetrate.

Do you remember the first time you saw an elephant?

I do. In Detroit at the zoo. It was the Hall of the Elephants. There was only one elephant. I remember he or she was up in a big cage in a dank kind of cement building. I went up some stairs. The elephant was up there at the top. The little set of stairs made the elephant seem bigger and more majestic and yet kind of meager in that cage, in that dank, dark environment. I think it was more scary than enticing, probably because the elephant was indoors in this really confined, strange environment. I never loved zoos much as a kid. I liked the monkeys; kids always like the monkeys, I guess; they’re doing monkey antics. But big cats walking up and down in a cage—it’s pretty grim,

The documentary makes the point that some zoos, like the Oakland Zoo, have created big spaces for elephants to roam. Does that make you feel less anti-zoo?

Elephants should not be in captivity. There’s not enough room no matter what you say. But a zoo can be made better. A circus cannot, because they have to really dominate an elephant to teach them to stand on their head, ride a bicycle.

And now elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory.

All you can say to people is don’t buy ivory, don’t buy ivory objects, and lobby or sign petitions. And don’t go to zoos or circuses either, it just fosters bringing more elephants [into captivity].

What would your little girl character Edith Ann say about elephants?

We did some animated Edith Ann’s and we never got this one animated: Edith reads about elephants and what good mothers they are. And she wishes her mother was an elephant—Edith would be a lot happier, the elephant mother would take better care of her, be kinder. Then she imagines an elephant for a mother. They go to the supermarket, her mother knocks shelves over. They can’t get through the aisles, go out to the mall, she’s ruining stuff and causing havoc everywhere. So Edith Ann gets over [her wish for an elephant mother.] Maybe we’ll get to do it some day.

(Editor’s note: To read about the tragic slaughter of elephants for their tusks, see the National Geographic cover story from October 2012.)


  • Ima Ryma

    Topsy, the elephant, was shown
    Within a Coney Island park.
    Humans did not like her stressed tone.
    Her temperament was much too dark.
    Trampled a trainer, the last straw.
    Deserved to get the new “death chair.”
    And, oh, such a crowd pleasing draw.
    Thomas Edison was brought there.
    He had killed dogs and cats for years,
    Public electrocution tests.
    But an elephant – that brought cheers.
    Of course for scientific quests.

    Thanks to Edison, Topsy “fried.”
    Edison prospered, Topsy died.

  • http://stanito.com

    No animal should live caged.

  • Ann

    Elephants are majestic animals that are heading to extinction primarily due to poaching and loss of habitat. Accredited zoos in North America are working with other conservation partners to help their plight. I am a proud zoo professional who loves these animals and many others. Standards of care, dedication and commitment to help countless animals; to educate, protect, conserve are our passion. Help support our efforts. Help us make a difference. Habitats are disappearing and along with them countless species.

  • Leslie Allen

    There is no doubt that elephants are intelligen, self-aware, respect the knowledge of the most ederly, mourn loss of family, teach proper behavior to the young, require extensive walking to maintain conditon, and raise their young with the assistance of an extensive family unit.
    Even in the absence of these admirable qualities, elephants do not deserve the treatment they receive at the hands of circuses, zoos, and ivory hunters.
    It is because of our individual morality that elephants, other wild and domestic animals deserve our compassion.

  • Laura

    Thank You Lily Tomlin for this documentary. Educational! Brought smiles and tears

  • Laura

    Thank You HBO as well.

  • Sonam

    Thank you to National Geographic and Lily Tomlin for
    “An Apology to Elephants” which I watched last night. Over the years I have watched countless films on elephants , most by National Geographic and I hope this extremely well done film will have an effect on enough people to boycott any circus other than Cirque de Soliel and to boycott zoos and all venues that cause cruelty to all animals, though elephants are at the top of my list. These majestic animals should be in a proected wild life sanctury and should never feel a chain on their ankles or a probe anywhere on their bodies. In my 62 years I have never been to a circus or a zoo and I am grateful I was brought up by parents who did not believe seeing animals being tortured in front of little children. Seeing elephants and all wild creatures is much more interesting than seeing them where they do not belong. Thank you again.

  • Danielle

    Great documentary. I did want to point out that in 2004, Ron Kagan the Detroit Zoo Director made the decision to move both of the Detroit Zoo elephants to a sanctuary because of purely ethical and humane reasons. In 2004 he said Elephants “are the only animals at the zoo for which there was a great disparity between what they need and what we could provide,” So the Detroit Zoo made the very responsible decision of moving both elephants, Winky and Wanda to a 500+ acre sanctuary.

    At the time Kagan wrote a memo stating, “Now we understand how much more is needed to be able to meet all the physical and psychological needs of elephants in captivity, especially in a cold climate.” The memo said it would cost $30 million to $50 million and require up to 20 acres of land to provide an adequate environment for the elephants and to this day the Detroit Zoo does not have any elephants.

    After seeing that documentary, I am even prouder of the Detroit Zoo’s decision!

  • Liza

    This documentary film will be the good chance for everyone to guess how important is life for elephant, like we want to live!! The documentary film will change something. This living things should be alive!!!!
    p.s. i don’t like zoos, becouse animals are suffering there!
    p.s.s. Thank you Lily Tomlin, Thank you HBO !!!

  • Cindy Sciano

    Kudos to you Ms. Tomlin. It was an excellent documentary, although difficult to watch at times. I thank you greatly for being such an important part of it. People need to have their eyes opened to the horrific brutality being put on all animals. Elephants & Rhinos are just 2 species among the thousands being brutalized & slaughtered every day. I can’t tell you how many responses I have gotten since I posted the information on facebook. I have friends in Africa, one of whom is a field guide, and lives out in the bush. In fact , two of his best friends are ellies. I have always been a fan of your work, from way back in the Laugh-In days. After this, I have gained an even greater appreciation for you & your work. I wish you continued success, along with my gratitude and appreciatton. Sincerely, Cindy Sciano, Hawthorne, NJ

  • Debbie earls

    How can I help, plse how can I help, just one lititle person, but I wanna help, thank u

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