The traditional method for capturing many social creatures, including elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, and many others, was—and remains—to kill the mothers. About elephants it was said, “The only way to capture a living animal was to kill the suckling females or the herd’s leaders. The account of the Tornblad expedition to Kenya tells of the slaughter of adult giraffes that enabled the capture of a calf, who was immediately welcomed into the group, cared for and given a name, Rosalie. Hagenbeck found himself ‘too often obliged to kill’ elephants who were protecting their young by using their own bodies as shields.”
Just keep telling yourself: they’re only animals. They don’t feel. They don’t care. They don’t grieve. The mothers and fathers do not love their children. The children do not love their parents. Keep repeating that it is a peculiar notion to believe that animals might wish a certain condition to endure.
Perhaps the most famous elephant of the nineteenth century was Jumbo. He was captured in a similar fashion. A hunter, Hermann Schomburgk, shot his mother. He describes it himself: “She collapsed in the rear and gave me the opportunity to jump quickly sideways and bring to bear a deadly shot, after which she immediately died. Obeying the laws of nature, the young animal remained standing beside its [sic] mother. . . . Until my men arrived, I observed how the pitiful little baby continuously ran about its mother while hitting her with his trunk as if he wanted to wake her and make their escape.”
Most of us have never heard these stories. Much better to believe that zoos rescue animals from the wild, that animals are waiting there for us, eager for us to allow them to inspire wonder and awe at the natural world.
But there is a very good reason we do not hear these stories. To hear them too often might impinge on the fantasy that the eager beavers and ocelots and wolverines and bears and elephants and tigers who are dying to meet us. Zookeepers know this. They have always known it. William Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo, wrote in 1902 to Carl Hagenbeck, considered by many to be the father of the modern zoological gardens and a trader in animals on an almost inconceivable scale, “I have been greatly interested in the fact that your letter gives me regarding the capture of the rhinoceroses; but we must keep very still about forty large Indian rhinoceroses being killed in capturing the four young ones. If that should get into the newspapers, either here or in London, there would be things published in condemnation of the whole business of capturing wild animals for exhibition. There are now a good many cranks who are so terribly sentimental that they affect to believe that it is wrong to capture wild creatures and exhibit them—even for the benefit [sic] of millions of people. For my part, I think that while the loss of the large Indian rhinoceroses is greatly to be deplored, yet, in my opinion, the three young ones that [sic] survive will be of more benefit to the world at large than would the forty rhinoceroses running wild in the jungles of Nepal, and seen only at rare intervals by a few ignorant natives.”