The next time your friends show you a photo of themselves riding an elephant, you might wince after watching Ashley Bell’s documentary.
It’s the story of rescuing Asian elephants from the cruelty they endure to be housed in zoos and “entertainment” in circuses, as well as rides. We see them as “docile due to their temperament,” Bell explained when I interviewed her at the Earth Day Network Gala recently when she received the Women in the Green Economy leadership award. “But what happens is (that) the Asian elephant is crushed, which is the (very cruel) process that turns a wild elephant into a service animal.”
Bell calls the film “an action adventure story,” yet it’s so much more.
It’s also a love story between the elephants being rescued and Lek Chaillert, the renowned conservationist/rescuer who was Bell’s guide on the adventure and who the animals trusted.
It’s a story about how the tourist economy causes these majestic animals to be abused – captured, trapped, separated from their mothers, beaten for days on end, and then, taught tricks so their captors can sell them to the circus and other traveling entertainers, or to tourist groups that host elephant rides – all to “amuse” us humans.
The film is a 76-minute emotional roller coaster.
And, it’s a story about how stretching way beyond your comfort zone can reap magical rewards, especially when you “blend (your) advocacy with (your) passion, because then something truly incredible happens,” as Bell emphasized. Her career advice is great (scroll down).
Where the elephants go when rescued
When rescued, the elephants are taken to Elephant Nature Park sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand, owned and managed by Chaillert. Bell said it’s “now the number one tourist destination in Northern Thailand.”
You can visit, but it’s an active, unglamorous vacation, where “you work for the elephants” who all have picky eating habits or limited diets, “just like people,” Bell said. You would too, if you had endured the same abuse.
A new series and new production team that mirrors the elephant world: Matriarchal
Inspired by the elephants and Chaillert, Bell is producing a docu-series called “Elephant Chronicles” about “the matriarchal world of elephants.” Every episode is in a different country about a different situation “faced by the elephant herd,” she said.
“In the elephant world, 80% of the conservationists are female,” she said, and they wanted to mirror that in their production, which is a partnership with Silent Crow Arts.
So, it’s “hosted by three female hosts, (has) a rotating cast of female directors, and (has) a female executive producer, show-runner and DP” (director of photography).
What you can do
Today, there are only 35,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants left in the world, and several U.S. states and several countries have banned or tried to ban the use of exotic animals in traveling entertainment the past few years. But the trade and cruelty persists.
A petition is being circulated to try to stop a ban being lifted in Thailand shortly. The ban will allow the importation of elephants and elephant parts, which is very, very bad news for the Asian elephant population. If allowed, this bill would encourage the continued cruelty and death of these majestic animals. (Full disclosure: I signed it.)
There is a bipartisan bill before Congress, H.R. 1759 “to amend the Animal Welfare Act to restrict the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling performances.” According to Congress.gov, the official website of Congress, the bill was introduced in the last Congress and has not yet been passed, so you could contact your Congresspersons.
You can read more about this issue in National Geographic.
Bell found a way to use her talents and expertise to make a difference – by leveraging her film production skills and contacts to tell the stories of these majestic animals.
So, I asked her what advice she would have for other women in mid-career who want to use their education and experience to make a difference. Here’s her response:
“Trust your gut. Tell your story. And you will get everyone in the world saying ‘no’ to you, and all those people will be the first people to call you” when you’re successful. “It was a complete uphill battle to do this film, except for the team who believed in me from the beginning and the team I worked with.”
“It’s going to be terrifying. There are going to be moments when you don’t know what you’re doing. And there are going to be moments where it’s scary to do things a little bit different.”
“But, I so encourage people to blend their advocacy with their passion, because then something truly incredible happens.”
“I attribute these elephants to helping me find my voice, as a writer, as a director, even as an actress, to help me find a stronger voice.”
“So, I encourage you, no matter how scary, to trust in that and don’t give up.”