Lily Tomlin Fights to Save “The Last Great Majestic Animal”

The comedy icon talks about the new HBO documentary "An Apology to Elephants"—and why she’s so passionate about this cause

by Susan Toepfer • MORE Features/Entertainment Editor
lily tomlin and elephant image
Photograph: Lisa Jeffries/Courtesy HBO

They are among the most beloved animals on earth, and yet most of us are unaware of their state of peril. Elephants today are shockingly close to extinction—some experts predict as close as 10 years—due to a renewed and ruthless ivory trade and the wanton destruction of their habitats.

The HBO documentary An Apology to Elephants, which makes its Earth Day debut on Monday, April 22, reveals the cruel practices to which captured elephants are subjected. Along with her partner, writer Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin executive-produced the film; she also serves as narrator. Tomlin talked to More about the documentary and other developments in her still-vibrant career.

MORE: How did you get involved with elephant rescue?
Initially because of the elephant activists here in L.A. There was a big campaign to send one of the remaining elephants at the zoo to a sanctuary in northern California. I had to read a lot and acquaint myself with the situation and the politics of elephants.
Billy was a bull elephant at the zoo. Bulls are harder to keep because they’re so much stronger than females. He had an isolated, wretched life. In reading, it almost became the elephant in the room for me because the situation is so obvious. In our lifetime the African elephant will probably be gone.
I visited the sanctuary up there, PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society). Its founder, Pat Derby, just died. She had been an animal trainer and she did so much for elephants and wild animals in general. Then I became active with elephants in Seattle and Texas.

More: There is so much new research about animal intelligence. Elephants are among the most intelligent. What strikes you as their most interesting quality?
Most people are moved by the fact that they grieve so deeply and ponder so deeply. In our documentary, you see the elephant’s grief over her miscarried calf. If you have a cat or dog in your home you know how sensitive they are. Animals are emblematic of unkindness, brutality—if we’re unkind to them, what will we do for people? It’s the elephant in the room for suffering.

More: I don’t know why it’s surprising that they suffer trauma in capture. Anybody or anything would be traumatized by being imprisoned, even a fly. Look at a fly under glass.
Speaking of little creatures—I’m observing a bee on my windshield now. He has a little bundle of something he picked up on his legs and he can’t get it off. A fly under glass—I went to a dinner charity where they had live butterflies in glass enclosures on the table. They’re beating their wings trying to get out. So of course when I went up, that was the focus of my performance.

More: If you were creating a character based on an elephant, how would she look or sound?
I would have to start with feeling tremendously confined. The A.Z.A. (Association of Zoos and Aquariums)—which is really just a trade group—their requirement for housing an elephant is the equivalent of a three-car garage.

More: The documentary shows how even a “humane” zoo habitat can be as restrictive as a cage.
Yes, a lot of people were brought up on the zoo. Even I had no idea what goes on. Now they build these multi-million dollar savannas that aren’t any better. Oakland, featured in this documentary, is one of the more conscientious zoos. A lot of others, including the zoo in my hometown of Detroit, have stopped elephant exhibits. They send them to sanctuaries. But elephants make money for zoos. A baby elephant is a big deal, though they’re unsuccessful at breeding elephants.

Elephants weigh tons and they have to stand on hard ground in these little enclosures. They go crazy—that’s why you see the stereotypical swaying.
Circuses are even worse than zoos—what they do to make elephants perform tricks. In Roots, Alex Haley said, “Anytime you see a turtle on top of a fence post you know somebody put him there.” If you see an elephant on top of his head you know somebody made him do it.

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