I spent all day roaming around checking out every animal, exhibit, cage and show I could find. If I had gone a year ago I probably wouldn't have noticed much wrong with them. But the last year has been an incredible period of learning: while preparing for my round-the-world trip I spent several months online researching zoos, sanctuaries and animal cruelty in general. Then for 6 months I traveled the world checking out all kinds of animals in as many places as I could (all in this blog).
That, and 14 years as a veterinary technician working in emergency clinics, had taught me to be a bit more observant than the average hot-dog-munching theme-park visitor. I filmed the pink flamingos and their mutilated wings (done to keep them from flying away.) Check out the photo: see how the wing on the left has been amputated? The other birds were all the same.) Worse, their pond was right next to a huge, loud ride booming and hissing every few minutes, causing them all to flap their wings agitatedly. Some life, huh?
I was lied to twice again. Once by a handler of a bald eagle, whose right wing was hanging down the whole time; I asked her about it and was told, "Oh, he's just tired". Look at the photo: does that look normal to you? Ever seen a "tired" bird hanging one wing (just one, mind you) down like that? And once again by an elephant handler who, when I asked about the bullhook he was holding just to see what he would say, answered, "Oh, they have skin three inches thick. They don't feel a thing." That was news to me, having studied elephants and read many times that their skin was up to one inch thick in certain areas but paper thin around the mouth, ears, and mucous membranes, a fact the handlers know all too well and use their bullhooks there for maximum effect.
They put on little shows, wear goofy costumes and tell lame jokes, and give you brief glimpses of beautiful animals. (One of them looked uncannily like my nephew Eric-- the staff guy, that is!)
But mostly I just watched the elephants, a mix of African and Asian females in barren, ridiculously small, and ludicrously inadequate pens. The poor elephant patiently giving rides to visitors and their toddlers paced a little circuitous path over and over through what was a nice, green, shaded area. But right next to it, practically unnoticed by anyone, were the remaining elephants, languishing in a barren, boring little dirt pen. The were standing around looking bored and depressed, one leaning to take weight off one obviously painful leg. What looked small was in fact even smaller than it appeared; the area was divided into two smaller pens to separate the Africans from the Asians.
I finished by watching the "Elephant Discovery" or "Encounter" or whatever it was called. It was a short demonstration of some basic skills they had taught Tava, the matriarch of the little clan. She was absolutely beautiful, but when I really looked closely at her, her body language spoke loudly of hopeless resignation to her fate. Her handler kept telling her "Trunk" upon which she would immediately raise her trunk up onto her head, undoubtedly to give her a happy, saluting kind of look. But check out the photo I took (attached) and see an expression undeniably sad. I wondered what kind of brutal training had made her fearful enough to keep raising her trunk so quickly for a puny human.
So that's 6 Flags today: very showy, all loud music, bright colors, fast rides, overpriced junk food and just plain junk for sale, and squeezed down among and between the rides, crowds and theaters, live the animals. Enduring long days of noisy, vibrating machines and screaming riders, these wonderful wild creatures, who should be in quiet forests and deep jungles, getting brief glances from passersby who hurry by to catch the next roller coaster ride, or pause for a moment to point out some animal in a cage to their toddler, thereby reinforcing at an early age the belief that it's okay to keep them captive their entire lives simply for us to stare at for a brief moment, then move on to watch the magician's show around the corner.