What happens to a spoiled two-ton teen? (“One Lucky Elephant”)

We’ve seen the wreckage of human teenagers played out the media with Lindsay Lohan (now 24) and eternal irresponsible teen Charlie Sheen (now 45), but what happens when the teen in question is a couple of tons of angry and impatient African elephant? That is the case with Flora, an African elephant orphaned by  the culling of her herd (all adults killed and the surviving babies sold to zoos and circuses.

In her documentary, “One Lucky Elephant,” Lisa Leeman originally was filming Flora’s return to Africa, but when those plans fell through, Leeman continued to film. What had been intended as a feel-good back to Africa story, turned into an interspecies tragedy. David Balding, the man who adopted Flora 16 years ago, loved her like a daughter and wanted only the best for her, but what is best for a wild animal except life in the wild?

At eighteen, Flora was likely to outlive Balding. Balding knew he needed to find a home for her and Flora was becoming temperamental–increasing bored with performing before crowds, something she seemed to enjoy in the past. Yet having been raised amongst humans and without the company of elephants, Flora didn’t seem quite suited for life in a zoo or even at an elephant sanctuary–particularly one that focused on Asian elephants.

Written by Leeman and Cristina Colissimo, this documentary “One Lucky Elephant,” has no villain. You never doubt that Balding had the best intentions and that the woman Carol Buckley who originally began the Elephant Sanctuary, also has Flora’s best interests at heart. Yet no one can really tell what is happening with Flora. Leeman and Colissimo originally thought this return-to-Africa film would be a two year commitment, but continued filming for eight years for a total of 10. And yet the story continues.

The story you won’t see in this poignant documentary is what happened to Buckley. Although Carol Buckley co-founded the 2,700-acre Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee in 1995, Buckley was fired by the organization’s board in March 2010. According to the report, she can now only see the elephant’s she considered family by appointment.

That’s a bit of irony that isn’t lost on David Balding. Buckley barred Balding from visiting Flora because it was decided that Flora suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (from the culling) and that the only family she knew, Balding, caused her to re-live that trauma. Last October, the NY Times reported that Buckley, 57, have filed a lawsuit against the Elephant Sanctuary because, among other things, the board of directors have barred her from visiting the 37-year-old Asian elephant, Tarra.

Balding, 73, told the NY Times,  “On the one hand, I’ve got to tell you, I’m sympathetic,” he said of Ms. Buckley. “She created this place. But talk about karma.”

Yet just who is family for a two-ton teen?

Watching the movie, which wisely doesn’t draw any conclusions, I thought of another spoiled teen with a tail: Barlet. Barlet wasn’t an elephant, but he was at one time a Disney star.

According to the book, “The Man Who Listens to Horses,” he was one horse that was too mean to listen to the author Monty Roberts and he was made mean by a well-intentioned human.

A movie studio had hired an actor, Slim Pickens, to feature in a film for Disney called “The Horse with the Flying Tail,” about a palomino jumping horse. They would use a foal, called Barlet, to depict the early years of the equine star. I was on the set as a stunt rider at a ranch in the Salinas valley where much of the footage was shot. I had known Slim since I was a child; he was like an uncle to me.

“Hey, Monty ,look at this!” Slim called to me. “Isn’t this the cutest foal you’ve ever seen?” Slim was toying with a stick and the little palomino foal was trying to nibble at it. “

“Watch this, “ he said.  He tossed the stick and the foal turned and ambled over to where it lay, picked it up in his teeth and brought  it back like a retriever. Then the foal wandered back to where Slim was standing…”He’s like a little puppy,” said Slim. “Watch this as well.” He turned to the foal and slapped his own chest, calling, “Hup! Hup!” The foal jumped up and put his front legs on Slim’s shoulders. “See,” said Slim. “Ain’t this going to be the brightest Walt Disney horse?

While it did seem fetching at the time, Barlet, also thought it was fun to perform the same tricks as a two-year-old, whether he was asked to or not.

 Owner Marten Clark showed Barlet as a halter horse but he was hard to control. And that was why Monty Roberts met up with Barlet again.

…This horse was too far gone to even ask for his trust. From a very young age he had been spoiled, not through cruelty in his case, but through unintended psychological abuse. He had been trained as a lapdog, and something had gone terribly wrong.

Perhaps the most obvious thing that had gone terribly wrong was that the foal grew into a horse in which the behavior that had once been thought cute and brought him attention, was only punished and his admirers had deserted him.

 Unhappily, his problems eventually got the better of him, and he died in a fight with a gelding on my farm at Laurellinda. He smashed a fence to get to the other horse and broke his front leg during the ensuing skirmish.

Flora may have been born wild, but the only family she knew no longer comes to see her. In a dog, that might be called separation anxiety. Instead of fear, she reacts like the princess she was, with anger.

She was “One Lucky Elephant” to be so loved for so long, but one wonders just how lucky she is now.

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