Tyke: Elephant Outlaw

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As a cast member of THE LION KING, I was one of four people who carried a puppeted elephant for the opening number “The Circle of Life”. To the audience, it looks like this majestic, paper elephant gliding down the aisle onto the stage.

The reality was it was very heavy, cumbersome and would often times be off balanced. I used to joke that one day I would jump out of my elephant leg like that one black person trapped on the Titanic trying to get to a lifeboat!

So, to some degree, I can imagine what Tyke must have been feeling the day she took off running down the streets of Honolulu in August of 1994. No animal…human or otherwise likes being in captivity.  In my opinion, there is something about the concept that is inhumane and unnatural.

A few years back, the Sea World corporation was under attack after an Oscar-nominated documentary was released called “Blackfish”.  It chronicled and shed light on how the great white whales were kept and mistreated…ultimately resulting in the death of one of their most beloved trainers.

Now, in 2015 producers Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore are shedding the light on the circus world and how their mistreatment and mishandling of captivated elephants resulted in the untimely demise of one of their own…Tyke:  Elephant Outlaw.

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in 1973, a baby elephant was captured in the wilds of Mozambique, shipped to the United States and trained for the circus.  That baby elephant was Tyke and it was evident early on that she was no ordinary circus elephant.  She was strong-willed and had a very long memory.  There were only two trainers in history that could contain her, Tyrone Taylor and Allen Campbell – who would lose his life in front of hundreds of circus spectators in Honolulu.

Campbell and Taylor were employees of the Hawthorn Corporation.  A corporation known to be the largest owner of wild performing animals in the United States and for leasing their trainers and animals to circuses around the world for performances.

The Hawthorn Corporation was also allegedly known for chaining their elephants for up to 22 hours a day and only released for rehearsal and performances.  Their method of “heavy-handed” and “aggressive” training were speculated to  contribute to Tyke’s ultimate acting out.  Not to mention the fact that she was an African elephant.  African elephants are apparently very bright, intelligent and will remember you forever for good or bad.  However, their temper is little more fiery than their Asian counterparts, who are known to wait for years to kill you if they see fit.  They are VERY patient and have VERY long memory banks.

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With Tyke, there were two incidents that occurred in North Dakota and Altoona, PA before arriving in Hawaii were the Hawthorn Corporation and Allen Campbell had been warned that Tyke’s unpredictable behavior may have  resulted in tragedy.  All warnings were ignored and on August 20, 1994 in Honolulu, Tyke was shot 87 times all over her body after killing Campbell and running down the streets of Hawaii.  Tyke’s running away was probably the most natural thing she had done since being taken into captivity.

Watching the footage of this event was heartbreaking for me and brought me to tears as I watched this beautiful animal be taken out like a scene from a Los Angeles car chase gone wrong.  As were the images of children standing on the side of the road at Tyke’s makeshift grave with signs reading “Circuses are no fun for animals” made me break in to what Oprah affectionately calls “the ugly cry”.

The citizens of Honolulu were so outraged that they petitioned for a bill to be passed banning wild performing animals from Hawaii.  The bill was defeated by one vote, but the circus has NOT returned to Honolulu since Tyke’s death.

In 2004, the Hawthorn Corporation was charged with multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act by the United States Department of Agriculture and ordered to release all of its elephants to approved facilities.  To date, John Cuneo, Jr. and the Hawthorn Corporation have never been convicted of any crime.

Many people felt like the circus died along with Tyke on the streets of Honolulu and that the animal activists have destroyed a legacy that has lived in massive generations of circus performers in America.  Since Tyke’s death, more than 20 countries and over 300 cities and regions have banned the use of wild performing animals.

Tyke:  Elephant Outlaw left me with one question.  Is or was the circus cruelty for animals or entertainment?  Watch for yourselves and draw your own conclusion.

Tyke:  Elephant Outlaw is screening at the American Film Institute Film Festival in Washington, DC on June 18th and the festival runs through June 21st. For more information, please log onto http://afi.com/AFIDOCS

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