TV Review: HBO’s ‘An Apology to Elephants’

TV Review: HBO's ' Apology Elephants'

Despite the poetry in its title, “An Apology to Elephants” is really more an indictment of circuses — a no-holds-barred attack on maltreatment of elephants in captivity and especially a circus environment, where the animals are “trained” through fear and physical abuse. Coming amid recent court action surrounding Ringling Bros., as well as legislative efforts to block such entertainment in cities like Los Angeles, it’s a timely and passionate piece of activist filmmaking. While the docu would have benefited from being fleshed out beyond its 40-minute running time, as is, it’s still an effective calling card for the animal-rights agenda.

Narrated and produced by Lily Tomlin along with director Amy Schatz and writer Jane Wagner, the doc interviews multiple experts and activists, providing insight into elephants’ elaborate social order, their intelligence and the devastating impact of subjecting them to captivity. Described as “the last great majestic animal out there,” the producers detail how bullhooks are used to instill obedience and coerce the giant beasts into performing “tricks” completely foreign to their actions in the wild.

Although the production flits around to incorporate poaching, clearly the main focus lands squarely on circuses, closing with a plea that “The elephants need our help” and calling for “compassionate change.” Nor is there any pretense of balance or objectivity, with nobody representing the circus industry interviewed, or any evidence they were approached.

Such are the luxuries of producing for HBO, the tradeoff being such one-sided arguments tend to leave curious viewers wondering what defense, if any, the likes of Ringling Bros. can muster. (For the record, a spokesman for Ringling Bros. parent Feld Entertainment — when contacted by Variety — issued the following response: “It is hard for us to comment on this show because we have not seen it yet nor were we contacted about it by the producers. In reviewing some of its descriptions available online and judging from the array of animal rights activists in relies on, it does appear to be rather one sided and anti-circus. I am disappointed we were not contacted about it as there is a great deal of pioneering work going on at our Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation; work that is dedicated to actually saving the endangered Asian elephant from extinction.”)

HBO cuts such a formidable swath through the documentary world — and occupies such a unique place within it — as to have the luxury of devoting resources to these sorts of exercises, especially when there’s a star like Tomlin involved.

Some will no doubt dismiss the project as more shrill liberal activism, as well as a valentine to PETA and the animal-rights movement. Still, when you see two one-time circus elephants reunited after years and tenderly caressing each other, “An Apology to Elephants” is one of those pet projects that, in its best moments, is hard to forget.

An Apology to Elephants

(Documentary; HBO, Mon. April 22, 8 p.m.)

Executive producers, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, Sheila Nevins; supervising producer, Lisa Heller; producers, Amy Schatz, Beth Aala; director, Schatz; writer, Wagner; camera, Alex Rappoport, Scott Sinkler; music, Joby Talbot. 40 MIN.

Narrator: Lily Tomlin.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 33

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Mark L fisher says:

    Well, nice show, no doubt..But you do understand that we..?? Americans , caring people.. Are very concerned, guilty
    Feelings about our elephants Africa
    They, machine gun them down, for ivory
    Food, fun.. ?? Whatever?? Now, we hate this action, but these African people, which we are not.. Have a hard time coming to conclusion that we know best..
    We could just buy the elephants, maybe we should, heck, we could buy the country & make it in to a park, for elephants..I love elephants.. But it’s very easy, to get kids, rich people to tell us what’s best.. Right?? Solution?? I don’t know, make a film about traveling to see elephants.. Buying them all & moving to calif, that really doesn’t seem right..guarding each one, ?? It’s almost
    Money for elephants, but people there are screwed, same with lions, the local tribes, been there for ?? 200 yrs, 1000 yrs, we are now saying, well, you don’t matter, tourist come & pay, to see the lions, elephants, so get out..maybe a movie about these topics, in Indian, elephants are loved, have a handler,
    Are not, messed with, God be with the
    Elephants that stomped there trainers to death, shoukdnt be messing with these
    Animals….same with killer whales, we know that’s messed up.. In calif, there’s a law against killing sea otters, cool, however, now there is a over population, no food, nature is in charge, so sea otters
    That are abandoned are, taken rehabed
    & released, to die of course, cause, there two many otters.. ?? Ironic besides, the rehab people used to capture & sell otters, & other sea anamals.. The world
    Comes around, abalone.. No more here
    Sick ness & otters, otters have diease that can’t spread to humans, ?? People messing with nature, yup..& result..
    Well, that’s another film…

  2. terry stallone says:

    The public needs to appreciate Elephants in their natural environment and realize that’s the only place to witness these wonderful animals. A circus can be appreciated without having animals doing unnatural acrobatic feats. The public needs to change their opinion on what constitutes a circus. Manipulating animals taken from their natural environment to garner applause from humans does not justify the use of these animals.
    There was so much in this documentary which clearly presents the elephants as an animal to be respected and wholly appreciated for just who they are without human interference. Let us hope it’s not too late to save them from either circus abuse and profit or slaughter in their natural environment for human abuse and profit.

  3. Mademoiselle B. says:

    Pro-zoo fundamentalists are so deluded and self entitled. Bah. These comments are very telling. When you don’t have any solid or scientific evidence backing your claims, I guess you use whatever you can. Unfortunately it’s not credible or convincing.

  4. Gail Plotkin says:

    Thanks, Lily and HBO. The way elephants live among themselves in their natural habitat can only inspire and educate. They need our support in Africa against poachers as well as in any county that abuses them for entertainment purposes. Abuse starts with taking them away from their homeland and family. Gail Plotkin

  5. Rick Piper says:

    I worked with Lily Tomlin on a movie set that employed dozens of exotic animals. Seems her opinions will become much more “flexible” when there’s a paycheck involved.
    She also appeared to be drunk and/or high for the duration of the filming. At least I hope it was some type of substance abuse. I’d hate to think anyone would be that loopy without the assistance of pharmaceuticals.

  6. When is this going to end? With the Feld winning that huge lawsuit against the HSUS you would think that people would be enlightened to the fraud and deceit of these animal zealots. Being part of the circus, well, fighting these idiots, wasn’t what we all had in mind. But, fight, we will, as elephants under human care are so much better off than there brothers and sisters in the wild, who receive no love and no care. The circus with animals will be around longer than how long this inane argument with these people who know nothing about circus life, including Lily Tomlin and HBO>

  7. Rick says:

    PETA has an agenda, it’s called fundraising. There have been numerous articles exposing the top tier of this organization. They are paid multi-million dollar salaries while the general public is duped into believing their supporting a legitimate cause. Do we all need to be reminded that most of these organizations actually spend less than 5% of their budget directly helping animals? How many dogs does PETA need to euthanize before the general public will stop sending them money?
    I have worked in a zoo environment for decades watching both free and protected contact elephant programs. By far the animals in free contact are more socialized, receive better exercise and live a much more dynamic and enriching life. If Oakland Zoo abused (or abuses) animals, then shame on them. It wasn’t the technique, it was the people. If someone died as a result of their animal abuse, why weren’t the people in charge put in jail? Instead they’re on TV acting like heroes.
    The author of this article was moved by two elephants chirping loudly as they were reunited. They make the same sounds when elephant keepers return from days off or from a lengthy vacation. Clearly, they are demonstrating the same level of affection and regard for their caretakers.

  8. Ron says:

    I spent 3 years touring with Ringling Brothers Circus. I rode an elephant twice a day, three times on Saturday. They were well fed, looked after by vets constantly, and a joy to be around. They were mostly bottle fed from birth and they have been domesticated for the last 2,000 years. If you have not lived with an elephant in the circus 24/7 350 days a year like I have then shut up. You are projecting your own pitiful life on that of a working animal. We were in better shape than our contemporaries. I am sure you are not. Gunther Gebel Williams was loving trainer and he he would never hurt one of his charges. You can ignore me if you like, please enjoy your walk over a cliff.

  9. AliceWisdom says:

    I think it is very interesting that this documentary (unjustly) vilifies circuses yet completely ignores the so called “rescued” elephants in “sanctuaries” that have died because of neglect by the animal rights extremists that run them. Elephants in animal rights “sanctuaries” have burned to death while chained unattended in a barn, caught TB from lack of cleanliness procedures, and developed arthritis and feet problems from lack of exercise—all while the animal rights extremists charged with their care claimed to be more “humane” than circuses. The real truth is that trained elephants in the circus and zoos live longer, healthier lives than anywhere else and the bond they have with their trainers is built on mutual respect, trust and love. An animal like an elephant will not consistently do the wonderful things a trainer asks of them any other way than with love and respect. Moreover there is not a single animal rights organization that is doing anything to stop Asian Elephants from becoming extinct. No sanctuary or organization has a breeding program, funds research or even attempts to increase the numbers of these amazing creatures. In fact it is the opposite as top animal rights activists have said elephants are “better off dead” than in zoos and that if an elephant comes to their “sanctuary” they “let them become extinct.” Those words are not that of someone who has the elephant’s best interest in mind. This infomercial is nothing more than a fundraising tool for animal rights extremism.

  10. Anthony Kane says:

    Gary Payne your as ignorant as the mean trainer that abuses elephants. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this out. Let me tie you up for 19 hrs and then poke and beat you to do tricks. All for the stupid people that go to the zoos or the circus. I’m strongly against both of those. I do not support any abuse on any animal. People stop going to these horrible places. The zoo is a horrible place to go. I live in Los Angeles and can’t stand the circus. This is disgusting. People do not turn a blind eye. Do not buy ivory, do not go to the zoo and please do not go to the circus…a human being that abuses these animals is horrific and what must go thri your mind. You must of not been loved. Did you lose a parent at a young age. Did you get beat as a child. Do you sleep at night. I wish I could do more than just banning everything associated with animal abuse. I don’t eat meat. People wake up….

    • CaraCalifornia says:

      Anthony Kane instead of name calling and accusing people that devote their lives to caring for elephants, try using facts. Such as PAWS does not believe in breeding and thinks elephants are better off dead than in captivity. That they have hidden positive TB results but still work with animal rights groups to take away elephants from zoos that give their elephants the best care in a TB free environment.

      Please take the time to really educate yourself on the issues before you spout off about us not being loved or losing a parent. That just makes it really hard to respect you.

      • Gary Payne says:

        Reply to CaraCalifornia: You call ME ignorant? Really?? Your opinion is based on this one sided infomercial. Mine is based on actual observation and study over a period of 40+ years and I am not nor have I ever been employed by a circus. Most circus animals are loved and well cared for and if you are against extinction (if we can help it) you are PRO – CIRCUS….as am I and proud of it!

      • Gary Payne says:

        Really CaraCalifornia?? You call me “ignorant”? Yet you base your opinion on a one sided infomercial. My opinion is based on actual observation and study over a period of 40+ years and I am not nor have I ever been employed by a circus.

  11. Gary Payne says:

    One can hardly call this piece a documentary. Since it does not consider anything other than long ago collected propaganda of/by/for the animal rights fund raising businesses, I’d say this is a 40 minute INFOMERCIAL. I am opposed to the abuse of animals. You’ll find it in any given community in the USA. But you’re not likely to find it at the circus where animals are loved and well treated. If the video collection is NOT propaganda, wouldn’t it be evidence? If so – why has it not been used in a court of law? Or has it? And has it been thrown out? And why? The animal rights businesses that bought and paid for this infomercial tug at your heart strings (who doesn’t love animals??) and by way of their many web sites and television commercials seek your generous donations. The animal righters (more accurately I’d call them wringers!) talk out of both sides of their mouths telling you that the circus exploits animals by way of ticket sales, yet they do the same thing, while doing little or nothing for animals. Look at their euthanization rates! If you do, you’ll never give them a dime. HBO gets no kudos from me for producing this. It does nothing for elephants. In the meantime, strides are being made at Ringling Bros. Circus (and others) toward research that will help to save the Asian elephant from extinction. Sign me: In Favor Of Circus!

  12. Casey says:

    This was very well done. I enjoyed hearing what the staff at the Oakland Zoo had to say about captivity of their elephants.

    The brutality throughout the film was gruesome, but I am glad they did not go deeply into culling herds or the militant type poaching. It was hard enough watching what the Americans would do to them for entertainment sake and of course money. Always about the money.

    Apt title. Thank you HBO and Lilly Tomlin.

  13. Emma says:

    One sided presentation? Indeed! TRUTH is what this documentary presents. Indisputable. Pure and simple. Need the producers have included any comment from the very abusers of elephants and other animals, within the circus industry? What can they possibly have to say? “Uh, no, we’re misunderstood in our filmed, documented abuse/misuse/exploitation of elephants. We really are trying to protect and preserve elephants”. Get real! Circus abuse, beatings and mistreatment of all manner has been well documented for many years now, with that “big circus”, which starts with an “R”, being one of the most well documented. How ridiculous to have suggested in your review that circuses should have had a role in An Apology to Elephants documentary!. The documentary wasn’t intended as a forum for elephant exploiters/abusers. That would be akin to having a child abuse documentary and extolling the looney philosophy of allowing the abusers equal time to explain having abused the children! Or try to explain that the well documented evidence was mistaken and that the abusers were honestly just trying to help children.

    Fact is, that so little is done to prevent animals abuse, neglect, mistreatment of all forms and exploitation in America, is because the animal welfare laws on the books are very weak and what there is, is not enforced. Abusers get slaps on the wrists, so they just keep on paying the paltry fines and abusing the animals. Why? Because not enough of us are educated and fail to lobby congress for reform in the Animal Welfare Laws. We need REAL laws that actually protect an animal anytime it is found to have been abused in any manner. Not some antiquated laws/guidelines which cannot effectively be acted upon in a timely fashion to help said animals immediately. No. When there are any formal charges at all, they take many months and seldom result in immediate removal of the abused animal from the perpetrator. It’s a joke really. Those of us who CARE are the only voices animals have. May we endeavor to learn more, educate more, and do more and not be afraid to speak out and speak up on behalf of animals who so desparately need our help.

    Thank you HBO!!! Thank you Tomlin and Company. Keep it coming! Would love a follow up film. Persistence can only be a good thing and may be the guiding light we so need to stop this sick way of treating animals. And to stop people looking the other way when it happens.

  14. JMA says:

    The reality is people pay $$$ to see an elephant and any other animal for that matter to do tricks and be controlled in a habit by humans. So long as people shell out the money this will never stop. Defending today that a circus is full of caring educated doctors with great food, is just as ignorant as saying my son is in the best prison. It’s clean, food everyday, doctors at all times, we don’t beat or hurt him. It’s still a prison he is not free. An elephant is the most beautiful magestic animal and We shouldnt be doing this to them. They feel happiness, depression, they mourn, and there scared. It’s not defendable what we do to them no matter how hard we try to justify it. It should stop so we can save the human race and our ignorance. It’s wrong and I am ashamed to have gone to a circus. Very ashamed. I applaud this video for taking the time to educate and love & care these beautiful creatures. Thank you!!!

  15. CaraCalifornia says:

    It is amazing that instead of focusing on the issue of possible extinction within the next 50 years of the “only magestic animal left on earth” (which I find extreme and biased because I thought all activists believe in a pig is a dog is a boy theory) that these people spend money on once again showing the same doctored videos that can’t even be held submissable in court because they have been altered so much.

    And talk about paying up in lawsuits, when the Ringling lawsuit was thrown out of court as a big waste of ten years of taxpayer money for activist groups to PAY ex circus workers to testify, the only ones being hurt in the end were the millions of animals that should have received the 9.3 MILLION that HSUS had to pay to Reps Entertainment.

    The elephants in the care of circuses and zoos receive top notch vet care, the freshest of food, and plenty of water. So why not pay attention to the 86 elephants that were slaughtered just a few weeks ago, not including the 30+ fetuses that were aborted as their mother’s faces were hacked off while still alive? Sorry to be so in your face but it is time to give up this petty arguement and let the expert caretakers do their job and focus your intense energy on saving this species as a whole. Until the only place left to see an elephant will be at these “evil, disturbing disgusting circuses”

    • Aaron J says:

      Some proof to back up your claims would be appreciated (i.e. “doctored videos”).

      • Ann Early says:

        What a strange post. I don’t know who you are, but the people who appeared in this documentary and whose organizations have endorsed and promoted it, include two of the foremost African elephant researchers and experts in the world: Cynthia Moss of Amboseli Trust for Elephants, and Joyce Poole of Elephant Voices. They have lived among the elephants and studied them for decades. You don’t think they know about the poaching crisis? They suffer these losses personally! And then there’s the amazing appearance of the late Pat Derby, an expert in the care of emotionally damaged former performing elephants. These heroic women, hardly animal-rights extremists, are in a small group of people in the world who know elephants best. Not sure why you think what they have to say is petty, why you think circus workers are expert caretakers, nor why you think this was a PETA documentary. (pig is a dog is a boy=PETA).

      • CaraCalifornia says:

        These same few videos that are used were taken over long periods of time, cut to only show small segments. Things are repeated and sounds are obviously enhanced. Do you not question why the people who “have the best intentions for these suffering animals” held on to this “evidence” until it was convenient to attack? Such as the Ringling video took place in nyc but wasn’t released until 6 months later when the tour was in California where activists are brutal? Or the Have Trunk video from years ago not released until Water for Elephants came out?

        And why haven’t these videos held up in court? Everyone has a hidden agenda.

  16. Bob Freed says:

    Maybe if enough people see this film and stop going to Circuses they will stop using elephants.
    Sad sad film. Shame on us for doing this to elephants.

    • Emma says:

      I believe the only agenda in “An Aplolgy for Elephants” was quite clear and concise. This degenerate abuse of elephants must stop. There is not question about the abuse. The objective is how to stop it!!! It is inhumane, traumatic, lunatic, shameful, sad and many other negative adjectives I could add, but won’t. You get the picture. And the larger picture is this: WHAT DOES IT SAY OF MANKIND TO SO ABUSE AND DEBASE AN ANIMAL AND FEEL NO SHAME, NO CARE, NO EMOTION AT ALL FOR THE PAIN AND SUFFERING THEY ARE INFLICTING UPON THE ANIMAL? It clearly says: Mental Imbalance. Are you ok with that and a champion of it? It’s ok for disturbed individuals and/or groups to run amok, abusing and debasing animals? Or is it only ok when it’s for profit?

      Do you know anything about factory farming practices at all? Or do you believe those videos of the most hideous of abuses upon animals which end up on your plate, are also “doctored” or “manufactured”? Open your eyes, CaraCalifornia! Then open your intellect. Is abuse ok, any time, for any reason? So what if the tapes you reference were “released” at the most opportune time? This is what’s necessary to achieve a positive result, perhaps.

      Pretty soon, it will be illegal to film illegal animal abuse. What say you to that? Is it ok to just disengage entirely from this travesty? To stick you head into the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist or worse yet, deny that it does. Hidden agenda indeed. One thing which is becoming more clear everyday is that ignorance on this topic is definitely NOT hidden. Go hide that!!!

      • CaraCalifornia says:

        My head is as far away from in the sand as can be. Not that it will change your opinion but I do not just spout off whatever I am feeling, I work in the animal care world and am very involved with much that is being discussed. Everyday I am working alongside exotics, and I can truly say I know them, and they me. And our relationship is built on trust and respect. I hope if you have pet, you have never used a leash, if you have ridden a horse, never used a bridle. These are accepted training tools to correct and guide animals.

        A guide, hook, bullhook, fireplace poker, whatever you want to call it, is an accepted tool not only by AZA but the USDA. Elephants are not trained using fear, but with operant conditioning.

        And to say that “so what if the tapes were released at the most opportune time”….are you kidding me? Right there extinguishes all your passionate opinions. If these activist groups really and truly believed that this footage was harmful and abusive, they would have taken it as soon as it was taped to officials. They wouldn’t have spent years secretly sitting on it and making it look and sound exactly how they want it. If you want to use ridiculous comparisons, that would be like knowing a child was being abused but waiting until the news cameras arrived so you could get as much attention for being a good citizen as you can.

  17. Michelle Peacock says:

    Thank you HBO, please continue to show this kind of show, it is long overdue! The public have a right to know the horror at these “circus” and all road side “shows and zoos”! There is NO excuse for the inhumane way these animals are treated and NO excuse for depriving them of freedom. England has already banned these kinds of so-called shows! Animals are not ours to exploit in any way. You can see how a nation treats its human population by the way they treat their animals! The US is one of the worse and until all humans treat animals in a humane manner there is no hope for peace on this earth!! Make the connection!

  18. Jenn says:

    The only “side” Ringling has to this story is something along the lines of, “We love and care for our elephants.” We don’t need an explanation. I’ve seen tons of video footage of circus cruelty to know that anything Ringling or other circuses have to say is just a line of bullshit to protect their vested interests. I wonder if the documentary mentions the over $200,000 fine they were also slapped with last year for not meeting even the bare minimum requirements of the Animal Welfare Act. Their have been several former Ringling employees that have come forth about the abuse. Never support circuses that use animals.

  19. Jeanne says:

    Anything that educates people on the subject of elephants, at this moment in our collective history, is a good thing. If this film educates people in the slightest, it’s a good thing. Circuses can still go about the country, but not with animals, preferably. Look at the Cirque Du Soleil, they are far more entertaining and no species are doing tricks against their will. When these animal circuses make money, they never put any of it towards bettering the lives of these animals, they should, but they don’t, so enough is enough. Educate, educate, protest, make calls to your city officials, sign petitions, do everything to help, because if the shoe were on the other foot, you’d hope people would do something about something that is so obviously wrong.

  20. It is obvious you don’t know anything about elephants, but this documentary will teach you. I don’t know if Feld Ent. has investment with Variety, but I can tell you they are no conservation organization organization, and if you believe that PT Barnum sucker-spin, I have a bridge to sell you. They are not breeding elephants to conserve the species where they can only be conserved in their natural habitats where they belong, The “conservation” Ringling touts certainly ain’t the unnatural glare of the lights, and the constant chaining of slavery while being dragged from town to town in fetid rail cars 90% of their lives. Ringling and the zoos are breeding to make more little money-makers, baby elephants, and they both don’t care that their mothers have herpes (EEHV) which they pass to their babies and their babies die a young and very painful death. This is a rotten corrupt industry. It’s great to quote straight from the usual stinking vomit from Feld’s PR department, but then it is you, the reporter who has done his/her research, to debunk the immorality and death sentence to animals enslaved in the circus or zoo.

  21. cfe2012 says:

    While the argument may seem one sided I ask you to put yourself in the place of the elephants. A circus performer but with no pay, no rights, no ability to leave. Is this a circus performer? “no pay, no rights, no ability to leave.” Or is this something else? You say one sided, I say animals have no human voice. Someone must speak for them. Thank you HBO.

  22. Pat Sides says:

    You can’t seriously think the circus has any defense, excuse or reason other than $ to do what they do? Have you seen any of the undercover pictures (you know,the sort of activity that the red anti-animal states want outlawed so no one can see what goes on) of the elephant on the ground hog-tied and several people including a woman standing over the completely helpless animal w/ bull-hooks – THERE IS NOTHING THE CIRCUS CAN SAY TO JUSTIFY WHAT THEY DO it makes me sick and there shouldn’t even be a debate – it is outrageous, cruel, disgusting, disturbing and horrible. Of course, these animals are killing their “keepers/trainers” wouldn’t you?

  23. George Valentin says:

    I will elaborate that this documentary is an apology toward Topsy who was electrocuted at Luna Park in Coney Island back in 1903.

More TV News from Variety