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Ignorance Is Bliss: My Day At Six Flags

by Coco Hall (cocohall [at]
A behind-the-scenes look at the elephants and dolphins at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, CA. The video is 4 min.
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Imagine a five year old girl sunk in a velvety movie theater seat in 1952, clutching her bitty box of jujubes, crying for Dumbo, whose jailed mother rocks him with her trunk stuck through a prison-barred window. That was me. A half a century later, I’m preparing my campaign to free the elephants at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, formerly known as Six Flags Marine World (Six Flags). When I saw an ad on their website for a new program, Trainer For a Day, I signed up immediately.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, though owned by The City of Vallejo, is managed by Six Flags Theme Parks, Inc., and exists to improve the value of its stock. It promotes an image of family fun, education, and conservation. Six Flags is not a shabby amusement park. A cross between Disneyland, a county fair, Marine World and a Zoo - which it actually is, approved by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) - you pay $50 for the day. It has a number of programs that customers can buy into to enhance their experience. Programs such as Trainer for a Day, offer the customer extra pleasure and exclusive access to animals, but the real point is to make more money. For example, for a fee, you can feed a seal or pet a dolphin, or for more money, sit on the edge of the pool and play with the dolphins. For even more, you can be a Trainer For A Day. Whatever level of customer investment, it all adds up to animal exploitation.

I spent three hours with the elephants and three with the dolphins. My day as a trainer began at “Tava’s Elephant Encounter “. I was shocked by how clean everything was. The yard, the barn, the pool, and even the elephants themselves were immaculate. The aura of the exhibit was having the desired effect on me, like a magical song, “Everything is wonderful for these elephants and every step has been taken to make them happy, la la la.” I found my right brain thinking, “This isn’t so bad”, countered by my left, “What are you thinking? This is a prison!”

A description of the Six Flags elephant herd from my assigned trainer, Patrick:
Liz, Asian, 43. The San Diego Zoo sold her to Six Flags thirteen years ago saying she was a bully and had no personality. Now she is the Alpha elephant and a “big goof”. She likes to eat, is lazy, and a big baby. She has no friends but hangs out with Taj.

Taj, Asian, 67, worked in circuses, zoos, and at Moorpark College in Southern California, where there is an exotic animal training and management curriculum. She came to Six Flags thirty years ago and now is on her last set of teeth.

Valerie, African, 25, is a “sweetheart and follows you around.” She and Bertie-May, Asian, 26, came to Six Flags two years ago. They lived together in a trailer for fifteen years, traveling around with their owners and performing in various shows.

Tava, African, 29, arrived from Africa at the age of two after being “rescued” from a culling. She is very smart, manipulative, uses tools, and knows if you have food.

Malika, African, 20, came from Zimbabwe, surviving a culling at the age of two. She is a “little princess” and hangs out with Tava.

Joyce, African, 22, was sold to Six Flags two years ago by a private owner. She is smart and sometimes swims with Bertie.

The elephants, overall, looked good. They were clean; their feet looked relatively healthy; they could all walk without problems; I didn’t observe any bullhook wounds or “bedsores”; their eyes appeared healthy; and they seemed weighty enough. I asked Patrick if they had health problems. He said there were none because their care was so good. I wondered about the prednisone listed on the board for one of the elephants. The rash of euthanizations in the ‘90s due to arthritis and joint problems makes his rosy picture hard to believe.

1999: Judy, 33, was euthanized because of leg deformities.

1998: Ginny was euthanized at 58 after suffering from chronic arthritis.

June 1996: Twenty-seven-year-old Bandula was euthanized because of chronic arthritis and severe joint pain.

November 1995: Mardji, a 44-year-old African elephant, was euthanized after suffering from chronic bone inflammation.2

The elephant yard is small for seven elephants and completely devoid of vegetation. In the wild, elephants forage most of the day and like to throw grass and dirt on their heads and bodies. These elephants are not provided with the opportunity to rip grass, leaves, and bark with their trunks or throw around vegetation and dirt. Sometimes they forfeit part of their precious allotment of food for tossing. At least they have dirt to stand on, and a shady shelter to stand under. They have access to a cement pond but no one went near it while I was there. Apparently it is deep enough for them to submerge themselves sideways. The barn has separate stalls for each elephant and a concrete floor. One stall had a softer material stapled to it. Patrick said they are kept in there at night (ten hours) when the weather is bad, but otherwise stay in the yard day and night. The only restraints I saw were the big bars in the barn and the fences in the yard. No observable chains.

The saddest scene of the day was the morning elephant feeding. We divvied out about two quarts of dog food-like elephant pellets into seven buckets and set them in a line, four feet apart in the yard. The trainers lined up the elephants, trunks holding tails, and marched them in an indirect circle to the buckets where the elephants stood, docile, trunks up, foot up, circus style, until they were given permission to eat.

They also get an occasional mound of alfalfa, a daily bale of hay and fresh, human-grade fruit and vegetables as treats. Unlike the inhabitants in two sanctuaries in Thailand which I recently visited where the elephants were given bushels of fruit and vegetables every day in addition to endless mounds of vegetation, each Six Flags elephant is given only one bunch of bananas, one orange, a few sweet potatoes, a few carrots, and one apple per day, and no fresh fodder.

The trainers claim that the elephants get plenty of walking exercise, pointing out that when food is abundant in the wild, elephants don’t walk tens of miles a day. But saying it doesn’t make it so. Walking two miles around the park after hours on asphalt next to a man with a bullhook, or giving rides around a one-sixteenth of a mile track for hours, will not fulfill the natural desire of elephants to travel all day with family, searching for food and water.

The noise from the rides doesn’t bother the elephants, according to Patrick. He doesn’t notice it anymore, so they don’t either. Can he hear like an elephant, through the soles of his feet?

The trainers at Six Flags are not smarmy carnies. Patrick is a UC Davis graduate in biology and animal sciences, who began working with the two Asian elephants at the Santa Barbara Zoo when he was 12. All are clean-cut, athletic types. But as I also found typical of the mahouts in Thailand, they often lack respect for their animals. One told me that Tava is “really dumb”. Steve, who has worked with Six Flags elephants for 26 years, described the elephants as “his family” because he spends more time with them than with his own family. But does he love them? “No. They don’t love back.” According to Steve, it is wrong to attribute human emotions to animals. His daughter thinks she loves her dog but the dog doesn’t love her, he says. Elephants don’t love. They care for their young, but they don’t love them. “I don’t think any of the trainers love the elephants.”

Of all the information the trainers gave me, the greatest emphasis was on the importance and justification for training, which they legitimized for making medical checks easy and stress-free for the elephants, and for the continued safety of the elephants and people. They described the ubiquitous bullhooks as “an extension of my arm” or “like a leash for a dog”. Several trainers said the bullhook doesn’t hurt the elephant at all due to their one inch thick skin, defending this falsehood even after I questioned it. “It is nothing more than an annoyance,” Patrick assured me, “like an itch.” But if they are using it only to guide, why do they need the sharp metal point and hook? For the elephant’s safety? For its stress-free medical check ups?

Neither in Thailand nor at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in San Andreas, California, have I seen such meek, compliant elephants. Without hesitation, the elephants obeyed their masters’ quiet words. But as a group, they did not interact as a normal herd of females would. I did not observe any socializing between them. In contradiction to his statement that various elephants were pals with one another, Patrick said that each one stayed to herself and they did not socialize as a cohesive herd. They all seemed dazed and withdrawn, as if on drugs, standing still in the yard, doing nothing. I returned a few days later and saw two of the elephants swaying stereotypically. Once I saw some of them acting like normal elephants by reaching out to touch Taj when she returned from her morning greeting duty at the park entrance. But they were mute. When elephants are comfortable and social, they rumble, squeak, and trumpet. Patrick said they don’t need to communicate because they are not foraging or roaming long distances. But all I can wonder is how long you could cage me before I too went mute.

No one can deny that training is essential for using animals as entertainment, and entertainment is Six Flag’s most lucrative product. In one show Liz moves logs, has a tug of war with members of the audience, and ends with her eating elephant-sized kibble from little children’s hands. One of the trainers described the other daily show as exercise for the elephants. For example, he told me with a straight face, when they sit up, it’s good ab work.

Each elephant show ends with a few sentences about the need for elephant conservation and how the audience can help by taking the proffered International Elephant Foundation (IEF) brochure. IEF is a non-profit that primarily focuses on breeding programs in zoos worldwide and management of wild elephants in Asia and Africa. The Six Flags conservation program consists of donating money to IEF. They believe that breeding in captivity contributes to conservation in the wild because, according to Steve, almost everything we know about elephants in the wild started with captive breeding programs. “There were animals in zoos that are now extinct because people didn’t make an effort to learn how to breed them and keep them around.”

In order to combat this, Patrick said they hope to breed the three younger elephants sometime in the future. “The North American elephant herd is aging,” he said, ”and will need to be replaced.” Six Flags’ tragic history with baby elephants must have slipped his mind:

March 2003: Misha's calf was stillborn.

November 2002: Tika, a 24-year-old African elephant, died from a massive infection caused by a dead calf decomposing in her womb.

October 2002: A baby elephant died during labor.

November 2000: Six Flags ignored warnings that a still-nursing baby elephant named Kala should not be separated from his mother at Dickerson Park Zoo. Severely stressed and traumatized, 2-year-old Kala died from a viral infection just six months after the move. 4

Close contact between elephants and park-goers abounds. Standing unnaturally still as a statue, Taj welcomes them at the entrance. In defiance of the AZA policy recommendation against elephant rides, a few dollars will buy you one at Six Flags. Because the elephants are so docile and obedient, I can see why the trainers feel confident that everyone is safe. However, this is a false security. Elephants mixing with the public are accidents waiting to happen, and Six Flags should know this well.

In June 2004, an elephant keeper was critically injured after being gored by an elephant named Misha at Six Flags Marine World. Six Flags uses cruel, outdated circus-style training. Elephants are punished with bullhooks and forced to give rides and perform tricks. It comes as no surprise to PETA that a frustrated Misha snapped and attacked a keeper for the second time. In June 2001, Misha attacked a keeper during invasive artificial insemination procedures. In 1991, five people were injured during elephant rides at Marine World, and in 1993, an elephant rampaged and threw a rider onto a cement path, resulting in a $600,000 settlement. 3

When the photographer was taking my picture with Liz, the trainers encouraged me to get close to her and put my arm around her trunk. Her only actions were circus poses: open mouth, trunk up, foot raised. I loved hugging her but I felt mortified. Perhaps the elephants are bored out of their minds because there is so little enrichment, just two hanging tires, a shallow pool, and onlookers snapping photos

As I left “Tava’s Elephant Encounter,” I felt overwhelmed by their belief that this is a wonderful place. I walked away thinking that if anyone criticized their elephant exhibit, they would say with disbelief, "But it's so clean, and the elephants are SO well trained and happy."

I spent the afternoon with the dolphins. The zoo maintains four walruses, 12 dolphins, and one orca. The trainers are all women, mostly with degrees in marine biology. They obviously love their wards and enjoy training them. Like Patrick, my trainer, Becky, emphasized that the real purpose of the training was for medical checks and procedures. They take blood regularly and since the animals are so well trained, says Becky, the procedures are “stress-free”. But if they are concerned about stressing the dolphins, why do they keep them in smooth little pools, urban pools, that bear no resemblance to natural habitat? Why then do they expose them constantly to crowds of humans clamoring to touch them? Why do they keep them at all?

In a private workshop on how to train a dolphin, I learned that they work with positive reinforcement of the correct movements while ignoring the wrong ones. The trainer uses body motions to signal a trick. If the dolphin does anything close to what the trainer wants, he gets a “bridging” signal (a whistle) and a small reward. Eventually, when the dolphin figures out what the trainer wants and does it, he gets the bridge and then a big reward, a human-grade, thawed fish. All feeding is done in conjunction with training.

The role-playing I did in this workshop was phenomenally revealing. To play the role of the trainer, all I needed was a little patience. But as the dolphin, I had to try endlessly to figure out what the trainer wanted. I walked this way. I walked that way. I walked toward door one. Whistle. I walked to the door. No whistle. I walked toward door two. Whistle. I walked to the door. No whistle. This went on and on until I finally figured out she wanted me to go to the wall phone and lift the receiver. I was intensely focused on her and felt tension and stress trying to read her mind. In order to get the food reward, I had to successfully figure out what she was thinking. Had I been hungry, had my access to sustenance actually been tied to this, I could not imagine the level of stress this would have caused.

“Wow,” I said, “I felt so stressed out trying to read your mind.”
Becky laughed. “Sometimes they get to do any trick they want for the reward,” she said, sidestepping my point.
“You’re a happy guy, aren’t you?” she cooed at the mirthful-looking dolphin, using a hand sign to make the animal nod in agreement.
“Dolphins aren’t smiling,” I thought with disgust, “they look like this even when they’re dead.” I have to admit that I adored the dolphins, but my willingness to do tricks with them didn’t last very long. Even playing ball with the two-year old baby, made me feel sad.

I spent the day with people, both park-goers and employees, who sincerely believe that the animals in the park are in the best of all possible worlds. To my question, “Are the elephants happy?” Patrick answered, “Yep. They love us. We play with them. They’d be dead if they weren’t here.”

Let’s face it, most people are urbanites, invested in the tenants of modern urban life and its “improvements” over wilderness. It is clean. There are few threats or risks. Food and water are abundant. Advancing this belief for wild animals is a simple step.

Once I understood the mindset of the park people, all I could think was, “Ignorance is bliss.” As long as they believe the animals are happy, they can continue to work within their captivity. The idea that animals are miserable chattel, unable to fulfill their true nature in any manner, would be an absurd concept to them. Sadly there is little difference between their belief that the elephants and dolphins are happy in a zoo and 18th century slave ship owners claiming that the “the time passed on board a ship, while transporting from Africa to the colonies, was the happiest part of a negro’s life.” 1 Just as 18th Century people believed slavery was key to their economic survival, the majority today believe they can not live without animals for food, entertainment, and drug testing. Animal rights is the abolition movement of the 21st century.

After struggling for the last time to extricate myself from my wetsuit, I passed through the pool area, which was now abandoned. The dolphin I had interacted with was there, swimming around and around his little pool. Dolphins and elephants swim or walk forty miles a day in the wild. Instead of roaming freely, eating, playing and socializing with their families all day, as captives they are forced to be circus caricatures of themselves, forever assaulted by the flatness of their pens, the glare of the lights, and noisy roller coaster cars.

However, there is hope today for captive elephants in North America. Zoos are scrambling to contend with evolving public opinion, which has risen against elephants and other large mammals in zoos. Thirteen zoos have either closed their elephant exhibits and sent their elephants to sanctuaries, or plan to shut them down when their elephants have died. With enough public pressure, maybe the Six Flags Seven will someday join the lucky, emancipated elephants in sanctuaries.

1 Hochschild, Adam, Bury the Chains, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005


4 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

Related Categories: North Bay / Marin | Animal Liberation
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elephants never forget
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