Born Free - Sold Out

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Born Free - Sold Out

By Bob Chorush on TheTreeHouseMagazine.com
August 2009

Excerpt from his upcoming book Fowl Gestures: The Riotous Madness Behind the Animal Rights Menace

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In August 2003, 7 elephants captured in the wild in Swaziland were shipped to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, part of the San Diego Zoo. The three elephants in the San Diego Zoo at that time were shipped to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago where all three died within two years due to the colder climate. After trying to stop the move from Africa and the elephants’ importation into the US, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) began a campaign to publicize the elephants’ plight. As a contract employee for PETA, I was sent to block the zoo’s entrance by dumping a truck-load of horse manure….

The last thing I did before climbing back into the cab, was to brush myself off, shake the shit out of my shoes, and put on the elephant costume, a two piece fluffy grey outfit with attached feet. It was supposed to be an elephant driving a dump truck full of manure. I could barely drive with the elephant feet, but driving while wearing the elephant head would have been suicide, so I would wait to put it on until I had dumped the manure.

A red light on the dash board reminded me that the dump safety latch was off, but I needed to dump the manure from the cab. The worst that could happen is that the tailgate would bounce open as I drove, fertilizing a short stretch of residential road. I didn’t think that the truck would maliciously dump itself, but I still drove very slowly.

I saw Andrew, a PETA campaigner, with a crowd of demonstrators at the zoo turnoff from a few hundred feet away. I called to let him know I’d be there in moments and to move the demonstrators back from the road.

My heart pounded. I really wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming confrontation, but a lot of PETA staff time, and money donated by animal-friendly people, had gone into this. I didn’t want to let them down. But I also thought about the elephants who would be living here forever, and I realized that they had already been let down. They no longer had their freedom. Making a fuss about its loss would make it that much harder for the zoo to capture more wild elephants.

I slowed even more as I approached the intersection. The zoo entrance was a four-lane road off the main road, two lanes in, two out. I signaled for a right turn, clipped the curb with the right rear wheels, then cranked the wheel hard left, pulled the Dump handle and began easing forward. I checked the side view mirrors and saw that as the dump body lifted, I was laying down a good two foot deep mound of manure across both entry lanes to the zoo. Andrew and the demonstrators were cheering me on.

I ran out of shit about two-thirds of the way across the four lanes. Since it was too late to go back for more, I pulled the truck up a bit so that the truck-shit combo blocked all four lanes. The dump bed was still in the up position, but it looked kind of dramatic that way, so I left it. I locked all the doors to the truck cab, rolled up the windows and put on the elephant head.

I called Andrew to ask him how things looked. He told me it was great and I asked him how long I should keep the doors locked. “Forever,” he said, as TV cameras and still photographers surrounded the truck. I could hear Andrew and the demonstrators chanting “Swazi Elephants–Born Free, Sold Out.”

I waved and pretended not to be able to hear the cops who pounded on the windows and doors. The cops finally gave up and called a tow truck company to break in. By then the area was cluttered with eleven cop cars, several cop motorcycles, a few cop bicycles, traffic directing cops, one cop helicopter, a cop backhoe, cop traffic barricades, satellite news trucks, two TV station helicopters and a mounted cop whose horse seemed more interested than he did. I even noticed an ice cream vendor doing a brisk business among the curious and official.

It was hot in San Diego that August day. Locked down in the sealed cab of a dump truck while wearing an elephant costume was really hot. Really, really hot. With the manure residue on my clothes, it smelled like the inside of a horse. I started sweating and soon had completely soaked my clothes and the elephant costume. It was so hot my eyes were sweating. If they didn’t arrest me soon, they’d have to rescue me. I phoned Lisa, PETA’s Captive Exotic Animal Specialist in Seattle, on my cell phone and told her that I was near passing out. She was relaying the information by email to folks in Norfolk.

Lisa called back with reports from Norfolk that I was breaking news in Southern California. Two TV stations had interrupted regular programming to go live to helicopter coverage of the manure dump at the zoo. Photos of me in the elephant costume in the dump truck were flashing around the world. She asked if I had my sound bites.

One of the reasons that PETA is so successful at promoting its message is that staff is trained and prepared to stay on topic. Campaigners are given pages of documented information about the animal issues along with quotes and short comments for the media about the reasons for the particular demonstration, so they are prepared to concisely explain the reasons for their actions or answer other likely questions. Sound bites.

“Yes,” I told Lisa. “I’ve got my sound bites…if I’m still conscious by then!”

I heard a new clicking noise coming from the passenger door of the truck and looked over to see a tow truck company employee sliding a metal strip down into the door.

“Gotta go. It’s show time. Talk to you later.” I said goodbye to Lisa and should have said goodbye to the cell phone too but I didn’t know that yet.

What the cops had failed to do in 30 minutes, the tow truck driver accomplished in 30 seconds. As soon as I heard the door mechanism click open and saw the passenger door start to move, I opened the driver’s door and poured out of the truck. I felt better surrendering than being pulled out.

I was grabbed by more people than you generally want touching you at one time if you’re not in a mosh pit or an orgy. My elephant head was yanked off and I was handcuffed. I still wore the bottom of the elephant. As the police began to herd me towards a police cruiser with my elephant feet flapping, a group of media surged forward shouting questions, but I knew my line.

“I may be in jail for awhile,” I shouted. “But these elephants will be here for the rest of their lives.”

Other than quotes from a press release or a call to PETA, those were the only words they’d hear from me. I only had time to shout them once or twice anyhow before I was jammed into the cage of a police cruiser.

Since I was in California, the arresting officer introduced himself, welcomed me to police custody, and asked me to please stay put. Then he shut the car door to drive to the jail.

I’m handcuffed in the bottom half of a sweaty elephant costume, locked in a metal cage, inside a moving police car, with locked doors, and no door handles, on my way to jail, and he says to stay put? If irony could qualify as police brutality, this was it.

The cop slowed while a huge electric metal door opened, then we moved into an underground parking lot and loading dock under the jail. I’d lost my elephant head, but I still had about three hours left to be booked, get out of jail, and catch my flight back to Seattle.

A steady stream of police cars disgorged petty criminals. I noticed they didn’t spend much time there. I was in the garage for more than an hour.

I looked over to the loading dock where the police had set up several desks to process new arrivals even before they entered the building. Six cops, some clearly upper-level by their suits, stood or sat around the table thumbing through and passing around copies of the vehicle and criminal codes. Every so often, I would hear a raised voice say something like, “We can always charge him with littering.”

My shaved-headed arresting officer came over to chat with me.

“I’m in P.E.T. – the Psychiatric Emergency Team,” he told me.

“What part of someone dressed like an elephant, locked in a truck, dumping manure at the zoo tipped off your department to send a Psychiatric Emergency Team guy?” I asked.

“Hey,” he laughed, “things have changed in law enforcement. Sure, there’re still the old-fashioned head-thumpers and kidney-punchers, but most police officers now are college educated guys.”

“I’m glad to hear I didn’t get one of the old-fashioned guys.”

We were interrupted by a squad car screeching into the garage that stopped next to the car I was in. The emergency lights were just shutting off and the siren growled to a stop.

“You drove here with lights and siren to drop off the elephant head?” my captor asked the driver.

“They’re endangered, aren’t they?” replied the driver, freeing the huge head from its cage in the backseat.

“Elephants are endangered, not elephant costumes,” explained the PET-cop.

“Well, nobody told me,” complained the patrol car cop. “They just told me to get this head over here right away. It’s evidence.”

For a moment I was afraid that the patrol car cop would insist, Cinderella-style, on seeing if the elephant head fit me and matched the elephant body I still wore, just to nail down his case. But I guess he had other species to save and serve. Anyhow, the elephant head itself was pretty compelling evidence – you couldn’t ignore it or deny it or claim it was your softball team cap.

After chatting with the PET-cop for another half hour, I asked him why no one had read me my Miranda rights.

“OK, see that older guy over there in the brown suit with the Sharpie haircut?” PET-Cop asked glancing quickly towards the man. “He’s our anti-terrorism liaison with Homeland Security. He’s always called in on these sorts of things. He wants to talk to you before you’re Mirandized.”

“I bet he does,” I said.

A few minutes later, I was led up the loading ramp and sat down on a wooden bench in front of the Homeland Security liaison guy. The elephant head was sitting on a chair to his left, dangly-trunked and leering during the interrogation, a stark warning that the same fate could await me.

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