In 1994, the world watched as Tyke the circus elephant rampaged through Honolulu, Hawaii after mauling her trainer to death. Yet few who knew the animal’s history — and the inhumane treatment she received in the off-season — were shocked. Performing-animal abuse isn’t new and continues to make big waves. The film TYKE ELEPHANT OUTLAW tells the story of the elephant with a focus on performing-animal abuse.
We spoke to to co-directors and co-producers Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore about the film, screening as part of AFI DOCS 2015.
What led you to documentary filmmaking?
SM: When I was in college I saw the Maysles’ SALESMAN and it transformed what I thought about documentary and film altogether. In 1968, during my senior year at Columbia University, I had friends who were involved in filming the Columbia student revolt and I became aware of political filmmakers like Emile de Antonio. To me, the idea of capturing the events unfolding in society on film was incredibly exciting. I left behind my plans to become an ivory tower academic and went out to find any work I could in the NYC film industry.
SL: After graduating from university, I was a stills photographer and became involved in documenting the feminist movement. It soon became apparent that film and television was a very powerful way to communicate and explore political ideas so I made my first film and have never looked back.
How did you learn about the topic of your film and why did it inspire you to make a film about it?
TYKE ELEPHANT OUTLAW grew out of our research into the work of a passionate group of lawyers that is attempting to fundamentally redefine the legal status of certain animals to provide them with some of the same basic rights as humans. They believe that some animals have a level of consciousness that qualifies them for legal personhood. Elephants are one of them. They are highly intelligent, have extremely close family ties, show empathy and are among the few animals that exhibit self-awareness, something humans do not develop until the age of two. In the course of our research we came across the story of Tyke whose story of rebellion against slavery and abuse we felt embodied many of the themes and questions we were exploring.
With difficulty: During our early research when we were trying to track down those who actually knew Tyke, we were not prepared for the level of resistance and antagonism we would encounter. Twenty years after her rampage in Honolulu, the topic of Tyke remains taboo within the secretive America circus industry. More than any other incident of its kind, Tyke’s rampage polarized the debate over wild performing animals and heightened the industry’s hostility towards the animal rights movement and the media. It was, therefore, all the more remarkable to find those prepared to speak honestly about Tyke and life in the circus. We tracked down our main character Tyrone Taylor on Facebook and, after a period of suspicion about what we were up to and how we would portray the circus industry, he agreed to participate. Then, after two years of looking for Sally Joseph, a handler who had worked with Tyke at the Hawthorn Corporation in the early 1990s, we finally found her through author Mike Jaynes who had written about her in his book Elephants Among Us. Considering what was at stake for them professionally, the circus industry people who became central characters in our film are very brave individuals. Much of what they shared with us put their reputations on the line.
Despite theses challenges, what allowed you to continue making the film?
One of the primary reasons we decided that we could tell Tyke’s story was because of the wealth of archive of the incident. There were a huge number of news reports from the time and a lot of the material had appeared on YouTube, but we were desperate to find raw, unedited footage. In Honolulu, we…arrived at KGMB-TV where the station manager handed us a tape…that contained over two hours of beautifully shot raw footage of Tyke arriving in Hawaii, being transported to the circus arena and then running through the streets of downtown Honolulu and dying in a hail of gunfire. The extraordinary close-up shots of Tyke would become critical in portraying her as the film’s central protagonist.
What did you learn from making your film that you’d pass on to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
Although TYKE ELEPHANT OUTLAW tells the tragic story of a circus elephant with a history of abuse, we purposely did not set out to make an animal rights campaign film. We decided that Tyke’s story needed to be told largely by those who knew her during her life, the people inside the secretive and vary wary circus industry. Ultimately, and with much difficulty, we found a few circus people who shared their stories and their views honestly. They did it because we made every effort to be straightforward, un-judgmental and honest with them. It’s sometimes extremely difficult to suspend your judgments and preconceptions but it was absolutely necessary for the success of the film that we did. So that is our lesson to aspiring filmmakers.
Why do you think Washington, DC is a valuable location to screen your film?
There are legislators on the local and national level who have been addressing the issues in this film, specifically the use of wild performing animals for entertainment that has been banned in over 20 countries. Some congress people support the use of wild performing animals and some are calling for a nationwide ban on these activities. One is Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) who has introduced a bill (HR 3359) called the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act (TEAPA) that would amend the Animal Welfare Act to prevent the transportation of wild performing animals: https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/4525/text There are reportedly about the 30 congress people in Washington, DC who signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. We are currently trying to identify those who support the bill as well as those who oppose it so they can be notified of the screenings. Additionally, one of the characters in our film, Ed Stewart, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society and elephant sanctuary in San Andreas, CA was involved in introducing the TEAPA bill in Congress. He will join us at the Q&A session of at least one of the screenings.
TYKE ELEPHANT OUTLAW will screen at AFI DOCS on June 18 and 20, 2015. Watch an exclusive AFI DOCS clip from the film below.