Questions raised over credibility of elephant 'experts' looking after Lammie
Gauteng / 12 February 2019, 09:08am / Louzel Lombard Steyn
Johannesburg - Johannesburg Zoo claims that Lammie the lonely elephant is getting the best care and that there’s no need to move her to a sanctuary.
Who’s doing the caring is cause for concern. There’s an animal reiki healer, a handler with self- proclaimed ‘minimum training’ and an enrichment officer trained by a pet association.
Let’s start with the handler. Zoo spokesperson Jenny Moodley said ‘Agnes Mazibuko’ was the ‘curator of the pachyderms at the zoo’ trained in a German programme in elephant studies. Not true. The Zoo employs no person by that name; only Agnes Maluleke, the curator of carnivores and Alice Masombuka, Lammie's handler.
Masombuka confirms that she spent two weeks at an elephant management workshop in Hamburg in 2011, but says her "training couldn't be applied here [at Joburg Zoo] because of the design of our enclosure and the infrastructure we have. The training was built for that facility [in Germany].
“It was a minimum training,” Masombuka says. “It’s a requirement that if you work with elephants you either have to work under a person with 10 years’ experience as an elephant handler, or you have to attend this elephant management school.”
It is unclear whether the two other general animal attendants at the Zoo, Benjamin Koloani and Clement Chauke have any education or training in working with elephants.
According to the Norms & Standards for elephant management in South Africa, however, there should be “a minimum of two trained elephant handlers permanently and exclusively allocated to the care of the elephant”.
When questioned about the qualifications of the Zoo’s enrichment officer, Candice Ward, Moodley said she “was trained by COAPE and continues to be trained by them.”
COAPE, or the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology, is a pet behaviour and training organisation focussing on “a better understanding of the behaviour of pets”.
Their website makes no reference to elephant behaviour or training at all.
Zoo management refuses to reveal the names of any organisations or individuals advising the facility. According to Moodley, it cannot reveal who their external advisors are as it "would compromise their support for the zoo” due to "lobbyists” campaigning for Lammie's release.
In a recent eNCA television interview, Fran Berkowitz, an animal reiki healer and communicator, is quoted as an external observer vouching for Lammie's well-being at the Zoo.
When approached for comment regarding her profession and work with Lammie, Berkowitz said that she needed “to get permission [from zoo management]”, before she could answer any questions. No comment was received thereafter.
Even if the Zoo is consulting external specialists, their advice has been questionable. Most recently, Moodley advised that Lammie cannot be moved to a sanctuary as she has only one tusk and won’t be able to fend for herself, a comment showing complete ignorance of elephant behaviour.
The Zoo’s unfounded rationalisations to keep Lammie captive, and their decision to consult an animal whisperer over globally recognised elephant management scientists, has baffled the 13 experts who recently directed an open letter to Zoo management and Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, citing concerns over Lammie's welfare.
Among the experts’ concerns are Lammie’s lack of natural surrounds, lack of environmental enrichment, that her presence in the zoo has no educational value and that she has no social interaction whatsoever.
They also claim the Zoo has misinformed the public.
"The zoo states they have consulted with 'specialists' regarding Lammie, but none of the undersigned local and world-leading elephant specialists have been consulted," the open letter reads.
The letter calls for a meeting with relevant authorities to take place in the week of 13 to 20 February. So far, no correspondence on this request has been received.
Readers wishing to get involved can join the upcoming protest to Free Lammie on 9 February, sign the petition and join Humane Society International’s Valentine’s Day initiative in which children are encouraged to send their love-letters to Lammie.