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One Lucky Elephant: One heart-wrenching documentary

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’ll be posting this month about some of the excellent documentaries I’ve screened as part of the Vancouver International Film FestivalToday’s Pick:  One Lucky Elephant, directed by Lisa Leeman.

This poignant film tells the tale of two very complicated mammals – a human father (David), and his only daughter (Flora the elephant).  David aquired Flora as a baby, fulfilling his lifelong dream of having an elephant act in his circus.  For sixteen years they lived the ‘happy’ performace life at Circus Flora in Baltimore, MD; however, as Flora approached adulthood it became readily apparent that she was no longer content in a performance role (whether or not she was ever happy in this role is a topic for further speculation).  David made the difficult decision to return Flora to some semblance of pachyderm normalcy – thus creating fodder for a powerful documentary.

Filmmaker Lisa Leeman was contacted by a friend of hers that worked with Flora in the circus, and asked if she was interested in pursuing a project documenting Flora’s return to a santuary in her native Botswana.  Although Lisa’s interests were more in the area of stories relating to human psychology, she felt that this could be a nice ‘feel good story’ about the return of an elephant to her rightful habitat.  So on went the cameras for Flora’s final performance in Baltimore, and plans were hatched to shoot the documentary of her imminent return to Africa.

She never made it.

Over the next nine years (yes, NINE years) the turbulent story of Flora’s journey slowly unfolded.  Rather than this documentary being a piece about the ‘feel-good return of a creature to the wild’ it became a tumultuous and extremely emotional epic of strong wills, ‘expert’ opinions and one very angry elephant.  I was completely taken off guard at how much I sympathized with our elephant keeper David – Leeman’s storytelling and ability to show off the raw emotions of her characters is simply outstanding.

At the heart of this film is a clear message about the way in which humans like to control other species – while claiming that we know what is best for them.  Such a theme is echoed in many facets of our day to day lives, from inbreeding our dogs to livestock farming, zookeeping or dominance training of horses and elephants to show them ‘who is boss’.  Elephants have been documented to suffer profound psychological ailments resulting from human-incited events in the wild such as culls, poaching and herd manipulation1 (Flora was thought to have witnessed the slaughter of her own mother prior to being boxed up and shipped over to North America).  In addition, we can only assume that the long-term cognitive effects of dominance training and circus performance on these extremely intelligent, emotional and psychologically complex animals are equally or even more damning.  One Lucky Elephant should provoke us all into pondering the many ways that we humans choose to dominate (animals, the planet, each other) withought so much as a second thought.

One aspect of this documentary that I found extremely intriguing was the sheer length of time over which the story unfolded (10 years).  I was interested in knowing how documentary makers deal with the uncertainty within a story because I can see that for science and nature documentaries such a scenario is not uncommon.  For Leeman, the answer is different with each documentary, but she noted that the team working on One Lucky Elephant went through several ups and downs when it came to finding producers and cash.  Two of the films producers (Christina Colissimo and Jordana Glick-Franzenheim) invested in their own DV camera and continued with the filming throughout the long years of Flora’s journey.  Once a sufficient story presented itself, Leeman was able to generate interest and garner some financial support to finish the film.  I am certainly glad that she did, it’s a remarkable tale of both elephant and human psychology.


For more information on the film, Flora, and upcoming screenings check out their website.

1Bradshaw, G.A. and Schore, A.N. 2007. How elephants are opening doors: developmental neuroethology, attachment and social context. Ethology 113: 426 – 436.

Carin Bondar About the Author: Carin Bondar is a biologist, writer and film-maker with a PhD in population ecology from the University of British Columbia. Find Dr. Bondar online at, on twitter @drbondar or on her facebook page: Dr. Carin Bondar – Biologist With a Twist. Follow on Twitter @drbondar.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Steve851 10:00 pm 12/2/2011

    It was indeed heart wrenching to see that the best the elephant could do was to be put in the custody of such narrow-minded, politically petty people as run the Elephant Sanctuary. I’m glad Flora is better off (even though she could have been far better off), but I stopped donating to the Sanctuary awhile ago. If push comes to shove for the animals, I’ll contribute again despite the people who ran the Sanctuary then and who are running it now.

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