Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 – Tyke Elephant Outlaw

With the much-anticipated screening this week, on the BBC’s prestigious Storyville, of Tyke Elephant Outlaw (renamed for the broadcast: Circus Elephant Rampage), SM gives us her views on this remarkable film.

Tyke Elephant Outlaw is the 2014 documentary film directed and produced by Stefan Moore and Susan Lambert. It is the shocking story of a circus elephant who, during a 1994 circus performance in Hawaii, snapped and killed her trainer, escaped and was subsequently shot and killed as she ran through the streets of Honolulu.

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Tyke Elephant Outlaw came to life as the two film-makers were looking for an interesting project about an environmental subject but were looking for a project outside of funding from environmental action groups. Both film-makers were already very accomplished – Moore has four Emmys for his documentary work and Lambert has a distinguished, award-winning career in TV and documentary both in the UK and Australia. The two directors are known for their sometimes controversial approach to subjects and so their pairing on Tyke Elephant Outlaw made sense. Moore and Lambert stated at the Sheffield Doc/Fest screening that they did not set out to do an animal rights film as such, but they were both fascinated by the story of Tyke and saw it as an opportunity to discuss the backlash and tensions surrounding the use of live animals in circus performances.

The main focus of the film is the lead up to Tyke the elephant’s flight and destructive rampage through the city. The film alternates between news footage of the various parts of the events of that day, archive footage of Tyke and the other elephants both in the circus and at the Hawthorn Corporation, and to put all of this in context we see talking heads from those who were at the performance in 1994 and also from previous trainers who had worked with Tyke in other shows. The title, Tyke Elephant Outlaw, suggests we are dealing with a cheeky rascal character, much like an oversized domestic dog, but the film urges us to remember that Tyke was a fully grown African elephant weighing well over 8000lbs. One of the trainers, Tyrone Taylor, who worked closely with Tyke and who we will get know very well over the course of the film, talks of his start with the circus and the difficult introduction he had and negative reactions he received as someone not born into the circus. He also speaks fondly of having his first job with the Hawthorn Corporation, and that he trained under a top trainer and generally saw the whole experience as positive. He did however have some concerns with some of the old-fashioned heavy-handed training techniques.

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Tyrone says he noticed early on that Tyke was going to be hard to work with as she immediately challenged him by throwing hay at him during their very first session together. He also notes a couple of warning signs about her behaviour he had come to recognise. He tells us of her previous escape in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and her attack on an elephant groom at a circus in North Dakota, which latter event nearly resulted in the groom’s death. Tyrone mentions that she was not good for this work, not from any lack of intelligence or inability to physically do what was expected of her but a natural stubbornness and reluctance to be treated in this manner. This knowledge was disregarded by circus management and she was still used often in performances. The main concern he had with Tyke was that she was a large African elephant, and they are notoriously less willing than their Asian cousins to put up with unwanted attention for very long.

Most of the footage we are shown is set in Hawaii, and this Hawaiian theme follows through very nicely in the music the film uses. The footage they had access to is breathtaking, but obviously, because of the nature of the events that unfolded, also quite brutal and difficult to watch at times. The performance during which Tyke escapes, filmed on grainy home-video, is particularly tough as it shows the groom being attacked and the death of Allen Campbell, her trainer for that performance. To see someone actually die on camera is a terrible sight but it does serve the purpose of showing the fundamental primal horror experienced by the circus patrons watching unrestrained natural forces unleashing what they are capable of. The interviews with trainers, audience members and people connected to the circus industry are fascinating as they shine a light not only on Tyke’s case but also let the viewer into an almost secret world – that of the world and the people who work there. The News and bystander footage of Tyke on the loose is incredible quality given the time it was taken and gives the film the feeling of a siege or prison break scene in an action film.

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The film-makers stated at the post screening Q&A that they did not want to deliberately make a pro- or con- film on the use of animals in the circus but there is a very strong moral and animal-rights slant to the film – if not an out-and-out bias in the way the story is told. We are presented with a fairly balanced story but one that does seem to present a definite heroes-and-villains narrative. We are shown the tireless fighters for change, represented by the animal rights campaigners; and the villains of the piece, the Hawthorn Corporation – a dubious, almost made-for-villainy bad guy corporation that has a history of poor treatment of its performing animals. It also gives us the stories of a couple of elephant trainers and their lives working with elephants, as well as the animal shelter, Ark 2000, that is picking up the pieces and re-homing rejected circus animals. One of the most striking parts of the film is the animal shelter owner commenting that Tyke had done the most natural thing of her life by going on a rampage and fleeing from the circus. This aspect of the film highlights our own mistaken idea that animals can be fully tamed and bent to our ways of behaving. Even the trainers who worked closely with Tyke and treated her with kindness knew that at some stage she was going to exhibit her natural tendency to break free from her life of servitude. Their warnings were unheeded.

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The film has parallels with 2013’s Blackfish, in which the focus is on Tilikum, an Orca whale who has bouts of violence and ends up responsible for the deaths of three people whilst in captivity at Seaworld. The interesting thing about the Tyke case is that she was involved in a couple of incidents earlier in her performing life, even fleeing at one point, but that it took her causing a rampage off circus premises for her to be shot dead. Tilikum still lives at Seaworld and is presumably still alive. He was unable to escape and kill a member of the public outside the confines of Seaworld, so his story never really got the chance to play out in the public eye and Seaworld was able to, and probably still does, obfuscate many of the facts of his story. The biggest difference between these films is that Tyke Elephant Outlaw has come out amidst a climate of change with regard to the use of circus animals, whereas Blackfish was the action that began a campaign of liberation.

The world is changing. The circus profession has changed since the death of Tyke. Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Bros. have announced the phasing out of the use of performing elephants and more than 200 countries have banned the use of wild animals in shows. This is a great outcome for animal rights but there is a slight sadness that comes with these positive strides. The world may become kinder to animals and we may become more attuned to activity that, when examined, is barbaric, but there are losses. Gone are the days when the dream of running away to the circus can be fulfilled. Tyrone literally ran away with the circus, fought the odds of being an underdog and part of a minority and rose to the top of his profession. Sally Joseph, an elephant handler at Hawthorn for 5 years, talks of how working closely with elephants is unrivalled by any other experience in her life. The circus was the place to see amazing wonders and enjoy a life outside of the ordinary. What becomes of those people who not only earned a living there but were part of a larger family within the circus community? Tyke Elephant Outlaw does not address this but these are not its concern. That an elephant was finally an elephant, and that’s why it had to die, is the main point here – and this point alone, and the way it is handled and presented to us, makes Tyke Elephant Outlaw the film of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015.

Circus Elephant Rampage screens on BBC Four on Wednesday the 22nd July at 9pm.

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