Applause: Westport film and play cry out against elephant poaching
If you love animals, prepare to have your heart broken and your bile rise.
See the film “When Lambs Become Lions” at the Westport Library on Sept. 16. Then see the stage play “Mlima’s Tale” at the Westport Country Playhouse in October.
Hear this from the film: “Right before an elephant dies, it trumpets; it cries out just like a human. You can hear it from far away. You can feel it in your body. It’s painful.”
Hear this from the play: “How you listen can mean the difference between life and death. ... (Know) stories of the verdant time before the violent crackle, before the drought and the madness.”
Listen because the world is on the brink, warn the film and play. Listen because America’s Endangered Species Act has just been eviscerated. Listen because climate change is doing its best to devastate lives of animals and humans alike
Produced and directed by Jon Kasbe, “Lambs” is a documentary about men at opposite poles, one a rifle-bearing Kenyan ranger, Asan, hired to protect elephants from Somali poachers. The others are poachers themselves, “X” (who says he doesn’t really like killing) and Lukas who uses poisoned arrows to kill the majestic beasts and remove their valuable tusks.
Both “X” and Asan are fathers with sons, both need money to put food on the family table, both want their sons to have a bicycle.
The film establishes a moral equivalency between poachers and rangers, echoing President Donald Trump’s argument that the Charlottesville clash between white supremacists and protestors had “good people on both sides.”
Animal lovers might take exception. One such animal lover is Kenneth Bernhard, a lawyer with the Westport firm Cohen and Wolf.
“When Lambs Become Lions” is at Westport Library, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. Free.
“Mlima’s Tale” is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Oct. 1-19. Call 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org
“Wildlife and humanity are on a collision course,” he said, speaking by phone. In Kenya, wearing a wire, he pretended to be shopping for ivory to entrap a shopkeeper who sold the illegal commodity.
“I have always been a lover and protector of animals,” said Bernhard. “I abhor gratuitous cruelty to innocent creatures. I became active in the cause to protect animals in the 1980s when I joined the board of (Darien-based) Friends of Animals. Thereafter I had the opportunity to take numerous trips to Africa to see firsthand what the situation was and what I could do in the effort to protect African wildlife. After that, I became active with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and renewed my efforts by going on anti-poaching patrols in Senegal and flying patrols in Kenya. We’re losing 70,000 elephants a year in Africa alone. But the animals are treated with outright cruelty elsewhere, too, especially in India and Thailand.”
Feeling “blessed” to be involved in their salvation, Bernhard said, “They’re extremely intelligent animals. And they have communication skills we cannot hear.”
That seconds a magazine cover story in the New York Times, noting concern goes back as far as Aristotle who said that elephants were “very sensitive creatures and abounding in intellect.”
In the wild, these familial and social animals are subject to poaching and hunting. In zoos, the pachyderms undergo the stresses of captivity.
Protecting them in the wild is the better solution, according to Michael Harris, a lawyer with Friends of Animals who, speaking from Denver, feels “modern technology and funds will help solve the situation. The last three or four years have seen a great amount of resources and new technologies and a real change. You have drug, human, animal and arms trafficking, in that order. That’s how big a global business it is”
Recent events demonstrate how governments react.
Botswana ends its five-year prohibition against elephant hunting. Swaziland clandestinely ships elephants to American zoos. Zimbabwe has its trophies banned for export to the U.S., an Obama order that Trump reversed (a photo of Donald Trump Jr., posing with a knife in one hand, a bloody elephant’s tail in the other, went viral).
Connecticut, which has a town named Ivoryton, played a significant role in the trade, onetime having processed up to 90 percent of the ivory imported into the United States, mainly for piano keys. Imagine how many elephants were sacrificed and will be in the future now that a state law proposing a ban failed in the legislature.
Tusks are the central image in two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s play, “Mlima’s Tale,” which chronicles their path from Kenya to their eventual sale in China. The tusks, as embodied by an actor, implant a mark of Cain on all who trade in its pecuniary journey.
When produced off-Broadway, “Mlima” was called “magical, eloquent, absorbing and sad” by this reviewer. It raises issues, said play director Mark Lamos, “that need to be addressed by the public. It’s about things that need to be corrected and changed and dealt with by society, starting with the fact that poaching is poverty driven.”
Even more, added Lamos, “it’s also about varying your ethical standards to fill up your wallet. It will appeal to people who are concerned about the world, people who want to think about things and be in the presence of some wonderful writing. It’s an extremely theatrical journey through a world that is both beautiful and horrifying.”
Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.