Talking whales, chimpanzees, elephants and zoos with Charles Siebert

Charles Siebert

Charles Siebert looks like a movie star, and based on the impersonations he did in our conversation, he probably could be one, but he’s chosen to be a writer, a novelist and non-fiction writer, as well as a journalist. He’s a prize-winner in all these areas. It’s unusual to find a man writing about empathy, and especially about the plight of animals and giving credence to their inner life in major newspapers and magazines. This is just one of the reasons I sought him out. His article in the New York Times magazine back in 2005, An Elephant Crack-up?, moved me to tears and left an indelible mark on my conscience, in fact, such a profound one, that I swerved off of the well-worn channel of solely being a professional musician into a hybrid zone which became NatureStage. 

Siebert’s most recent article on elephants appeared in the September 2011 issue of the National Geographic. For a list of Siebert’s writings, please see the end of the interview.

Here are excerpts from our conversation in a Brooklyn cafe in early September 2011.

CS  (speaking about a television series in production)…so, we were going to start with the Janice Carter story. Janice Carter being the one who took Lucy from Oklahoma after her parents were done raising her as a human. The first act of hubris was bookended by the second which was “oh, let’s let her be a wild chimp now” and poor unsuspecting  suburban oklahoman Janice Carter agrees to help Lucy make the transition to the wild and goes with her to the Gambia and first Senegal. Well, you know the story, it’s all in Wachula Woods Accord

ML  You’ll have to remind me ’cause I read it about a year ago and I’ve seen Project Nim six months ago and…

CS  It ends up just as you might expect, totally tragically. Lucy has no experience. Some of the other chimps at least knew other chimps. By other chimps, I mean other chimps in this transition center. Lucy had only known human beings. The only chimps she had ever seen were in National Geographic…so it was impossible for her and she just refused. And Janice, who was supposed to stay for two weeks to help with the transition, two weeks became two months, which became two years, and lo and behold, she’s still there. She’s never come back. But at one point she lived for eight years on this island with Lucy in the middle of the gambia river. And through much of that time, had a cage built for her to live in so that Lucy would be forced to go out and be a chimp. Now how’s that for a total inversion of the whole dynamic? A human being living by herself in the wilderness in a cage to force a chimp to be a chimp?

ML That is the quintessential irony, and also how we find ourselves trying to find our own wildness.

CS Exactly. And Janice became more wild than Lucy. That’s the crazy thing. This suburban Oklahoman girl became like a wild child. I mean, she was climbing trees and eating ants trying to get Lucy to climb trees and eat ants. So anyway, the whole thing, to cut to the chase, just ended completely tragically because Lucy started to seem to be able to fend for herself and was learning to go off and eat…and Janice finally decided it was time to leave.  So she leaves the island and would come back periodically, and every time she did come back Lucy would be on the shore of the island to meet her and this time she showed up and no Lucy and she had this really bad feeling.  She went back to their old campsite and Lucy was found with no hands, no feet, just her skeleton. There’s been all sorts of speculation as to what happened, but one of the scenarios that the press has fallen in love with is that Lucy, always the first to approach humans, approached, unwittingly, poachers who just served her up. But no one knows what really happened, but obviously it could have gone no other way but tragically, given the circumstances. But the weird thing is, Janice stayed on and she’s been there for thirty-three years on end. We still talk and she’s very hard to get to know, as you might imagine. A woman who’s just retreated from civilization as we know it. But she’s very sweet, and I sort of won her good graces.  She agreed to be part of this documentary that Christopher and I wanted to do, but long story short, when we heard that Marsh was working on Project Nim…

ML Speaking of which, I really think you should go to the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Have you been to one of these?


ML If you can find a reason to come, my sense is that it’s an incredible opportunity to network with…you’d be a superstar

CS I don’t know about that. I’d just like to go to Jackson Hole. I’ve always wanted to.  Sounds like it would make a good story, covering it

ML I’m sure

CS When I was writing essays for Harper’s Magazine years ago I did a series of cover essays for them and one was about t.v. nature shows and how we’ve always framed nature. It actually got me on a very funny radio show with Sir David Attenborough. So, he was coming from England, someone else from Australia, and me from Brooklyn. It made for the oddest conversation. He started out not liking me. I think he thought I was way cynical, but in the end, we ended up agreeing with each other on a lot of fronts. He was always one of my favorites ’cause, you know his famous transitions, where he’d be like in Patagonia and climbing some mountain and then going (british accent) there is of course, you know, only one other creature with exactly these characteristics and it is…” and boom, he falls through some trap door, and the next thing you know he’s somewhere like New Guinea and then it would be “the New Guinea lemur!”

I just love that he kept falling through those nature trap doors. Nature as opera…

ML I just think if you’re trying to make a movie, you should just go to the source because theoretically there will be lots of funders there and there will be photographers and videographers and cinematographers

CS there will be all kinds

ML plus, just as a writer as you said, you could be observing too

CS Yeah, one foot out the door. Yeah, even at Sundance, I was amazed ’cause I helped sort of present as a favor the movie One Lucky Elephant

ML Oh I haven’t seen that yet

CS Yeah, they contacted me because they had read some of my elephant stuff and they asked if I would come out to the LA film festival and lead a Q&A after that, and so I did that and that was quite fun. Then I did one here in New York at the film forum. I hadn’t seen those guys for months, and sure enough I go to Sundance and they’re the first people I run into and they were there to see Project Nim and also to screen One Lucky Elephant which even though it’s not perfect, is a very affecting movie, especially on that frontier of elephants in captivity and the quandaries it gives rise to

ML Is that about Flora?

CS Yeah, the circus elephant

ML who basically didn’t want to go to the sanctuary because she missed her owner. Did she eventually get used to it?

CS Yeah, she had some real issues. She became quite obstreperous after a point. But the big controversy became that the owner wanted to have visitation rights and Carol Buckley (founder of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee) decided to put her foot down and say no, it’s only going to set Flora back.  It set off quite a controversy because Gay Bradshaw was called in to be the arbiter on this and she ended up ruling in favor of Carol and against the owner whose name now escapes me…the guy who raised Flora from an infant. And you know it makes for quite a Q&A afterwards  because people are sharply divided after they see the movie. “Raise your hands who thinks he should be able to visit Flora again?” It’s perfect because it gives rise to all the questions. If you’ve raised an elephant entirely in captivity does it become the next form of abuse to then deny that elephant any access at all to humans because they’ve become inculturated?

ML like what happened to Nim

CS Exactly. So that keeps coming up

ML I told you about the Elephant Project right?

CS I think you did and I read some about it on the internet

ML I’m trying to find different filmmakers who would like to make some of the films, including some I would make,  but I’m aiming to make a series of say, 20 short films that all show a quandary between the human and elephant for use in education

CS Oh I see

ML Artistically done, more than your typical science documentary, and I’d like to get an empathy curriculum that teachers can download

CS Oh interesting    

ML And being an artist, my second motive is to keep arts in schools and talk about how our connection with other species is directly related to nurturing the imagination which you need in order to have empathy. You can’t have empathy unless you can imagine how others might feel. These kinds of issues that you described coming up in the Q&A for project Nim…I’d like there to be these kinds of questions that come up to accompany the film set so that teachers, high school teachers and college teachers can say now can you address one of these questions and show how it connects to this particular situation in this film, using poetry and song and making your own movie, you know, using an artistic way to respond to the material and then applying the insights to one’s local community.

CS Yeah!

ML Getting people to start thinking about solutions that are locally based, so it’s not just about helping elephants, but how can we help the dog down the street we see get kicked

CS right, deal with the extension of empathy thing. That kind of vigilance which came up in the animal abuse story (Siebert’s article in the NYT magazine on the connections between animal abuse and domestic violence)

ML which I have right here

CS I just got a notice the last couple months ago that it won a “Best Science Writing.” It’s funny. I like that piece but this stuff doesn’t run on logic, I would have thought that the elephant breakdown story in the New York Times… you can’t predict this stuff, whoever’s choosing that year, who the judge is. But, that’s interesting about the teaching reaching out to kids because with the NRDC I just wrote a children’s book about whales that just came out.

ML Really?

CS Yeah, I should have brought it but I have no copies left. It’s called the Secret World of Whales. And we’re now negotiating whether to do a whole series and the next one would be elephants, of course. But, it was an eye-opener for me because I’d never written a children’s book before. To have to gauge the science down to that level, 9 to 14, it was very fun actually, since I’m dealing all the time with the high-flown rhetoric and philosophy and all this stuff and it was sort of refreshing to just say it so simply, and knowing you’re piggy-backing on whatever the imagery might be which was quite lovely. They did a really nice job. As a matter of fact, when I got back from the cabin, there was this box, and I’m going, why are they sending me this book again? And I opened it up and it is the Italian version. It’s the whale book and apparently the South Koreans are doing it too, so it’s getting out there, getting to the world.

ML That is great… so I keep envisioning going to the root of the problem

CS Uh hm

ML which is instead of viewing other species as other, saying of course they have feelings and an inner life and language, and how can we realize our power to be global stewards and that it’s our role… which is…I think a lot of people pay lip service to that but I don’t feel that it’s being taught to kids that it’s really amazing, you’re a human being and you can change the climate and create crops of any kind and do genetic mutations but you can also take care of all these other beings, you know

CS Yeah, well, you know, speaking of education, I mean, did you see Alex Shoumatoff’s recent piece about elephants in Vanity Fair? Very big spread. You know, I had my hackles up at first. It’s territorial, like I’m the only person to write about elephants, which is, of course, just a joke, but he really did a very thorough, broad sweeping piece, because he went just beyond the elephants and what’s left of their wild natural habitat, going all the way to the province in China where the ivory is still carved and sold.  What he revealed about China is that a lot of people there just do not understand what’s happening. They really think that elephants grow their tusks back, and some people, not just out of convenience, they really just don’t know, and with education, the same kind of empathy that you could generate here is spreading there, where there are people who of course love elephants.  But there’s where education is really really necessary because they’re the last big rapers of the species for ivory. They’re the biggest, not the only generator of the ivory trade, I mean there are other parts of Southeast Asia, but basically it’s China and where there’s a demand, you know, someone’s going to fill it, no matter what.

ML It’s all about status. Owning ivory in China, from what I’ve read, is for the super rich, owning ivory is an example of how wealthy they are

CS And what I like about Shoumatoff’s piece is that he took it even a step further than what you just said and says actually now the biggest scourge is the nouveau riche–the up and coming rising of new rich–with their booming economy who are trying out of a perverted sense of nostalgia, trying to recover the old rich’s coveting of ivory.  So it’s doubly perverse because they’re trying to bring back something that history would have otherwise shed if not for this economic boom.  When you travel around Africa, the Chinese have their tendrils in everything. I mean, they are everywhere. I mean, I was just there back in the fall in Ethiopia and Kenya and I’m telling you, no matter where I went in the most remote regions you’d pull into some little town and there’d be Chinese sitting at a table, you know, construction workers, because they’re building their country’s roads and they’re making all kinds of dirty deals and as you know, the governments are so corrupt in so many countries in Africa. it’s a mess, totally a mess.

ML Do you know about the company here in Brooklyn called Greenpoint films? I’m hoping to meet with this guy, Phil Buccaletto and I’ll send you the link. He’s just done a movie in Sri Lanka about human-elephant conflict called Common Ground

CS Oh yeah?

ML and I’m dying to find out what he thinks is one of the solutions to this. I definitely don’t think it’s just a matter of fire crackers, building trenches and electric fences

CS no

ML like giving the elephants space to self-regulate

CS I mean there are so many sides to this aside from just, you know, trying to ferret out the last of the poachers,  just the whole land issue and setting aside the minimal amount of space that allows…because even that is a tremendous compromise because elephants used to, pre-human, they used to wander the continents like whales do the oceans. They have these long migratory routes so already they’re being broken into unnatural land shapes. The best we can do is within those, try to maintain a vast enough region where they can regenerate the land because, in the immediate they really are quite destructive but they end up being vital because they

ML aerate (elephants are a keystone species which have myriad benefits to many other species from creating water holes with their tusks, to pathways through the savannah and spreading seeds in their dung)

CS They aerate the land but you need a lot of land to be left alone to go through those cycles and that’s just so hard to do. How do you pay for that? Is it ecotourism, with all these compromises and deals, but they’re the best, I mean that’s what being stewards means now. Gay Bradshaw would put it quite another way. With Gay, it’s more like can’t we learn to live alongside them? and it’s very funny because I just met with an old buddy of mine whom I wrote about in one of my earliest stories, Alan Rabinowitz. You know Alan?

ML no

CS He used to be with the wildlife conservation society in New York. He was a protege of George Schaller the great naturalist. Alan’s been devoting his life to saving the world’s last cats. It started with jaguars in Belize.

ML You have to come to this festival because I’m sure he’ll be there

CS Well I just met with Alan a week ago and we hadn’t seen each other in a few years and I said come on, we got to get together because he has his own organization now which is backed by a miner. He’s one of the world’s big mining magnates but he has a fixation with big cats, so he has given Alan millions of dollars to run this organization called Panthera and they have offices right next to the public library in Manhattan.  It’s really quite an operation ’cause from Jaguars he went to Siberian Tigers and all different big cats

ML Is he trying to, apparently there are more big cats in captivity in this country than there are remaining in the wild

CS Well that’s true of tigers but not of jaguars. He works on both. He’s trying to make corridors. The corridor idea works better for jaguars than it does for tigers because they have so little land left but by corridors I mean contiguous cross-country trans-continental regions that jaguars can move through. He found out that they migrate too often and that they don’t stay in cordoned-off patches which is a model that is really dying  and is a bad old conservation model – making little paradises

ML little islands

CS yeah, and it doesn’t work that way, and he says, you know, cats and unfortunately it doesn’t work for all species (it doesn’t work for elephants), but cats CAN  live around people. They’re stealthy by nature

ML and they come into cities a lot

CS Yes, so his whole deal is to get government by government from country to country to sign onto this idea of jaguar corridors.  What’s good about it is that it doesn’t mean putting aside land, it just means getting ranchers to cooperate and being more clever about how they keep their cattle. It means trade-offs so if the country agrees to develop this part of this land then they have to find a part that they’re not going to develop in that way, even if it means just keeping it a ranch, and then if the ranchers are vigilant about fencing off their land

ML They do that with wolves, the re-wilding idea

CS You know, but it’s causing all kinds of controversy now right, because a bunch of ranchers are now losing their sheep again

ML So here, you probably know this already but I read this last night.  This says that we’re closely related to chimpanzees but we’re AS closely related to the bonobos genetically so it’s like, given the right circumstances we’ll choose to be more peace-loving if we’re in the right environment and if we’re in a more competitive environment we’ll become more cut-throat and violent like the chimpanzee. But what I didn’t realize is that before ten thousand years ago when we started learning agriculture and we decided we needed ownership of land and therefore ownership of a partner and to create a family to till the land and we needed to own animals to work the land, that it was much more like elephant society. That human beings according to this were all about taking care of the youngest in the herd that it wasn’t about just MY child

CS Interesting

ML And this is I think a key thing that I want to mention in my talks because it says actually it IS in our nature to be compassionate and empathic but we have created this society that is all about segmenting, owning, individual territory…I mean there’s no way we can go back to that, and who knows what that was even like

CS but it’s in us, it’s inculcated in us, yeah sure

ML because one of the messages that I’m trying to get across is that if you look at elephants taking care of the youngest, if we took care of the children in our society with the same sense of urgency and love and shared responsibility

CS and shared compassion

ML and shared compassion, we’d have a much healthier society in general and then the more I read about human elephant connections the more I realize that government corruption often gets in the way with what many people want to do which IS to let the elephants have the space they need but without any other ways of making a living, it’s the same with poaching, so the idea with the elephant project is to have something kids in different countries can do, and of course they’d have to have access to a computer, but it can be translated into their language

CS It’s great, the, one of the more effective things, I thought behind what the Sheldrick’s were doing, they’re very clever, they you know, once every day for an hour in the afternoon, all these school kids just come and, well, just seeing their faces, they live, some of them, teeth by jowl with elephants where they’re afraid of them and they don’t really know them, and when they see the babies and hang out with the orphans and touch them and rub their tongues and you see their faces light up. You know, education on that level is incredibly important because then when you grow up, they’re suddenly no longer “the other.” Alan went through the same thing with jaguars in Belize with the local Belizans. He had to teach them a kind of first world romanticization of animals, where we’ve paved over our wilderness and yet we covet what’s left of it in countries where they are not at the same stage of development so we then ask them to put on the brakes of development so we can have our fantasy, and that’s not right. But part of getting them to agree to not develop their land, aside from explaining to them how they can make money off of that by not developing it, is also teaching them a kind of regard that they don’t really have. It’s the old romantic poet idea, there wasn’t the same regard for nature until we built these huge industrial cities and started sitting in apartments and longing for the natural world again

ML romanticizing it

CS Yeah, exactly. And that same dynamic happens with animals unfortunately

ML Do you want another coffee?

CS If I have another coffee my heart will explode, but go ahead. I’m just going to check on my dogs and make sure they’ve not been kidnapped (short break for taking care of his adorable and very patient dogs)

ML I was re-reading the National Geographic article and you say these factual things that are incredibly tragic. The pictures of course say a thousand words

CS Yeah, the pictures are pretty amazing but being understated is often more emotionally powerful

ML One of the reasons I decided to actually found a nonprofit instead of just being a musician is because I saw a couple films. It’s why I’m working on my filmmaking skills.  It’s so powerful for getting people to change behavior. I think you’re doing a great thing getting something on HBO. 

CS It’s so hard to get things going with film, but things just get held up all the time. I want to see some of these things just come to fruition. Could animals and animal shows be more popular? But we want to do a smart one. People can’t get enough of this new frontier, but it’s an old frontier. I kept saying in Wachula (his recent book The Wachula Woods Accord), it’s this endgame which we didn’t think we’d see in our own lifetime where the wilderness has become a big theme park which we have to fence off.  I want my next book to be about zoos–that zoos are being obviated because nature itself is becoming a big theme park

ML I discovered there is a zoo in Prospect Park (where I photographed the meerkats and baboons)

CS Yeah, that’s the zoo I was going start with ’cause that was my zoo as a kid

ML I didn’t realize there was a zoo

CS That zoo plays such a big part in my writing. It’s in one of my essays in Harpers and it’s also a big scene in Wickerby, my first book. I don’t know if you’re seen Wickerby. There’s a lot of stuff about us and nature. It’s out of print but you can get used copies of it. It’s called An Urban Pastorale. There’s a story in there about something that happened in there about the Prospect Park Zoo where a couple of kids snuck into the polar bear moat one night

ML There aren’t still polar bears?

CS No, that’s when they closed it down and renovated. It was the old inner city zoo of my youth and that story has a very tragic element.

(we digress into talking about equipment – cameras, lenses, sound recorders, transcribing software)

Well that’s quite a leap from mezzo soprano to this

ML Well I’m an organist too and I have to get back to play a wedding tomorrow

CS Oh, so you’re still doing…can you, I was interested when I saw the organist thing. Can you play the piano as well

ML Sure. I play parties and some services on the piano

CS We’re getting close to magic hour, aren’t we?

(I love that he notices that it’s dusk and there is indeed that sense of magic hour in the quality of the light. I take some photos of him in the cafe)

Magic hour in Brooklyn near Prospect Park - ML

You can do a favor for me because I’m going to in the next few days, send you…I do these essays for this online website called The Responsibility Project. It’s sponsored by Liberty Mutual Insurance, but what they do is they ask writers to do little profiles of people who are doing responsible things, so there are various ways of defining responsibility, so I thought I could do one about you

ML I love it. I’m so thrilled

CS It would be great publicity for what you’re doing. I noticed that you are asking these questions of people in the park and if you want to type out the answers you’ll be published in the Q and A. I just published a couple – one with Alan Rabinowitz (who founded Panthera  and one with Tony Frohoff who is working with the dolphins and whales who is in my whale story. So you’ll be there with Tony Frohoff and Alan Rabinowtiz and that would be good for you. Could you do that?

ML Of course. I’d be happy to. Thank you! Do you know Sanjay Khanna? Sanjay has also done a huge favor to me over the years because he wrote an extended interview with me for his Realistic Sanctuary blog and wrote for Yes Magazine and one for Nature where he quoted me when I was working on the honeybee project. and he wanted the artist perspective on how the arts can help get people to take action. I am in the process with the Park Dreams project…here, I’ll give you this card…it was inspired by a homeless guy in the public garden

CS Yeah that’s what I read. This is the guy who cleans up the cigarette butts

ML Yeah. I didn’t ask him what his dream was for humanity or anything.  He just said, “I don’t want your money. Why don’t you help me be a butt-picker.” And I said, “what are you talking about?” and he said, “see these butts here, my friends and I clean up the cigarette butts.” He had a huge hunch on his back and he seemed to be feeding expensive granola to the squirrels, hurling it out with his wrists because his arms didn’t seem to be able to move very easily, which is what prompted me to offer him twenty dollars…he had his cart of possessions and his crutch, and he refused the money. He refused the money twice and he said “I want you to help me clean up the park.”

CS Oh that’s amazing

ML He spontaneously said “I have a dream to see this country free of cigarette butts.” I don’t know, 70 years old, with a huge deformity and I couldn’t get him out of my head. It’s the same thing with the elephant project because the elephants I saw in the safari park south of Montreal is what prompted me to blend an organ recital with short films about elephants in 2005 which then led me to found NatureStage. I couldn’t get them out of my head

CS I could probably cobble it together with what’s online. It’s really good. A lot of people see this site. It would be good for your work

ML If you ever need anything…I’m happy to do whatever I can – video, photography. For instance, I was at the Animals in Society Conference in June at Wesleyan and got a bit exacerbated with some of the more esoteric viewpoints on the human/animal relationship and felt like I needed to get out and see the elephants at the circus which was in Meriden, CT. Ironically, I was invited by one of the board members to co-present at a sociology conference in October, the humanist sociology conference in Chicago about compassion and animals, and I wrote a blog on the NS site called Pink Poodles and Robotic Bees in Connecticutwhere I actually talked about going to the Cole Bros. Circus which is one of the worst circuses for elephants, and I had a still camera (no video) and I interviewed a six year old girl outside the back of the tent with my iphone, describe the horrors of seeing the tigers refuse to go through the ring of fire and how horrible she felt when they were hit by sticks, and I just used stills strung together of all these tigers pacing these cages that gave them maybe one inch to turn around, and then I found out that the USDA is suing that circus

CS Oh really?

ML and I sent that 30 second clip that is in the blog post to the lawyer who is taking them to court and she asked if she could use it, so one of the things I’m trying to convey to the students if I get more speaking gigs, is that if you just follow through on what moves your heart and you document it, even if you don’t feel that it’s great documentation, because, when I went to the safari park in Canada (you may have passed it on your way down from Wickerby) and I hope they don’t have elephants there still

CS Where is this exactly?

ML South of Montreal, not that far from the Vermont border.

CS So it’s sort of southeast of Montreal

ML If you google Park Safari 

CS Yeah I will. There’s a great sanctuary for retired chimps outside of Montreal run by a woman named Gloria Grow. She’s quite a dynamo but she’s been taking care of chimps. It’s called the Fauna Sanctuary.  On all my chimp travels and research I was told repeatedly to go visit her and never made it. Safari Park it’s called?

ML Parc Safari (french) whatever. I only went there because I’d never seen an elephant. I’d blocked out seeing the elephants my Dad said he’d taken me to Ringling Bros. when I was five.  So I kept seeing signs for elephants and giraffes…and I wondered what it would be like to see elephants and giraffes in the middle of the farmland of Canada. There were two siberian tigers, a bunch of chimpanzees, you know, playing with the grass, trying to make meaning out of their enclosure. People say, how did you get involved with elephants and I tell them that I was driving down this paved road watching the animals “on exhibit” where you’re not supposed to get out of the car. I came to the elephant enclosure and I thought, I’m going to get out of the car and I thought I’d pay them the respect of not staring at them out of the car window. And once I got out of the car I got this feeling from them of depression and they were swaying back and forth near this bull elephant in a stockade which apparently had tried to escape several times.

(we talk about getting public speaking engagements and Charles says his wife keeps telling him he should be on the moth radio telling stories. I tell him that sounds like a great idea, but if he also wants to get paid he could try animal behavior departments, public lecture series at colleges etc. I suggest Jay Allison on Transom radio should interview him.)

ML Wouldn’t it be great if you could get your stories in the Chinese press?

CS Yeah, totally. I might take a teaching job in Shanghai and that all depends on NYU

Meerkat in a glass enclosure with sand and rocks

ML So can I ask you two questions before we’re done?

CS Sure.

ML Do you think artists can really make a difference regarding the environment and our relationship to other species?If you could actually mobilize a bunch of people through money and time to do something that would help solve an issue with elephants or with zoos, I don’t know if you think they’re good or bad, or somewhere in between, obviously there are bad zoos

Gazing Back at the Children

CS Well those are two questions and I’m fascinated by both, especially the zoo one but maybe the answers are related which is that one, yes, obviously tremendous amount of difference, especially for the young that artists can make, because I think it’s such a different time that with what we’re learning but to put it across in a non-doctrinaire way, which is what art does, you know, art puts it across on almost a subliminal level, so it’s going right to the empathic pathways, especially for young brains where those pathways are still being formed, are more protean and mutable, so yeah, a difference there. And art is doing that more and more now because so much of the landscape of discovery is invisible which is to say biological. And therefore, poetry, what does poetry do? That’s where I started with an MFA in poetry. That’s where I thought I was going to stay and out of restlessness, got into journalism. But poetry is about building a bridge back from an unseen place to the knowlable. And that’s what writing about science is, whether it’s spindle cells or writing about viruses. The landscape now is not the visible, it’s the invisible.

So art can help make these connections that were kind of intuited all along. Of course elephants and dolphins and whales have spindle cells. We can’t know dolphin language but music can get that across. One of the next pieces I’m hoping to do for the Times or the New Yorker is about a woman who’s devising with the help of an acoustic engineer in Georgia, one of the first experiments to try to talk dolphin talk to dolphins and that’s perfect because what has it been all along…can they learn our language? Can Nim learn our language? And then we judge their intelligence based on how many words of ours they can speak which is totally ridiculous.

ML You know in the filmshort I made called Usthem, is that accurate that I say, one common language, emotion, one common wish, respect?

CS The first of those is more inclusion of both, the second is more speaking to you know us, about them, so there’s a slight difference there, but what this woman is doing, Denise Herzig, what she’s doing with this sound technician is really new to me because again, it’s trying to talk dolphin and that’s, but anyways, I think that uh there’s no gauging the amount of good kind of messaging that art can do in all kinds of forms, and I always love reading that article that comes out in the times in the art section how more and more artists are you know, trying to get across this landscape of biology because I deal with that all the time. I don’t just write about animals. I write about genetics and the microbiome and I’m fascinated by viruses and all that stuff.

ML Do you know about Catherine Chalmers’ work? She’s an artist who shows with these huge photographs, manipulating ants and cockcroaches in her lab in her loft, what animals disgust us and what animals we’re drawn to. I think she’s a brilliant artist and I I should send you her interview. At any rate, we were both mentioned in the same article by the San Francisco Chronicle on eco-artists. The reporter made a short video that includes Chalmers’ work alongside some of the images from the elephant film shorts I’ve made so far. The title of the film set is “can art save the planet?” an talks about artists who are trying to create on-the-ground change and call people to take some sort of action

Behind the Glass at the Zoo

CS and toward that, your second question, zoos, I’ve debated this for the longest time. There’s no doubt in my mind that they should be obviated but then you do get to that point that others make that zoos have to make this point for their very survival. What we do is by co-opting the one, we use them as a representative or ambassador for the…the argument is losing some part of its weight since the world they’re supposed to represent is rapidly dissipating, so what are they even representing

ML and people are often saying, we need to breed the elephants in captivity so we have elephants. What kind of world do we want these elephants to live in

CS it’s true that there are more tigers in captivity than in the wild, that kind of perversion, and they’re perpetuating certain species and conservation, but you know, the question can be debated forever about really what effect educationally a zoo has, or isn’t really just a kind of you know, carnival day at the zoo fun and then you don’t think about them ever again. You just went and got your yucks. But I will say it’s hard to be too doctrinaire or too dogmatic as insofar as I grew up in Brooklyn and had my first exchanges with animals in zoos. But that gets to the cart before the horse idea of are you born with empathy or did you learn to feel by going to the zoo

ML and I saw these elephants in captivity and saw and felt their despair

CS All you felt is their despair

ML and how horrible that dull, too-small area was for them. That’s what propelled me to read Heathcote Williams’ Sacred Elephant. He, by the way, gave his permission to have his prose poem in the short films that I did in 2005 for From Trumpets to Trunks

CS cool

ML I managed to reach his agent. I mean the goodwill, when you’re talking about things at such a dire level of urgency, sometimes I

CS well you know, here’s the thing. One of the things I always wonder about, is that given what I just said about who are we to pontificate to the next generation of young kids that they can’t go to the zoo and have their zoo experience, it’s going to in the same way that the Chinese…it’s going to have to come from them, it’s going to have to come from the kids saying I don’t like zoos

ML a lot of kids DO say that

CS and why are they saying that? It’s because they’re smarter about one, animals, and two, the status has changed, you know. There was a kind of naivite and innocence behind the way animals were kept, at least when I was a kid. There was a kind of simple childlike joy in having like, Mr. Gorilla here. Look at Mr. Gorilla. He’s sitting here by a log in a subway bathroom. We got him here, and isn’t that great kids?

Now I think kids are going oh, this is creepy. Cuz look at what they can see now on television. They can see these nature shows, they can see them in the wild, and they’re traveling vicariously and now I’m going to say something vaguely classist, I think it’s almost become an underclass experience where you still go and get that jolly, but where kids are more educated, I think they’re discomfited by the experience. I mean there’s always going to be the base “aw look at the giraffe and look at the monkey sitting there”

ML It’s interesting. I wish I knew more psychology because I’ve often wondered what makes certain kids want to save the lobster in the tank and some kids want to tease the lobster in the tank

CS Well there you go

ML What is going on there? I’ve always been hyper empathic which is why when I read your articles, you usually end with something that pulls on the emotions…Alex the parrot story, his last words were ‘I love you.” The chimpanzee learns sign language and says, “get me out of here”, or “key”, or “give me a hug.”

CS It’s funny you bring this up because you know, thinking, there was the chimp in captivity story where I ended the piece or very nearly ended the piece with the now late Carol Noone who started the sanctuary in Florida that took all those chimps from the horrible Colson’s lab in New Mexico. She’s the one who saved all them and she told me that story, and whenever I’m reporting a story, the minute I hear the ending, I know, I usually know that’s gonna be the end. I can always recognize what will be the end.

I remember calling my wife from Kenya and saying I’ve got the ending to the elephant story and it was about how one elephant killed that guy in Queen Elizabeth national park and then the next day the rest of the herd buried the body the way they would a dead elephant

ML this was in the Elephant Breakdown article

CS I knew right away when Carol Noon told the story the first time that she took over the Colson chimp laboratory, that she opened the skylights and opened up all their cages that first night she was on the grounds in her trailer and she could hear them talking because they could see the stars for the first time and she said she’d sit up days after that and wonder what they were talking about and she said I think I know. They were thinking we live here too. We exist.

(we talk about Alex Shoumitoff’s piece in Vanity Fair on elephants)

I think it goes back to your thing about emotion and respect, I think there is no much more important thing to evoke when you write about these things, NOT to say, hey they’re like us. They are them. They are a parallel complexity, they are a parallel analogous version of biology. They are a different assemblage with their own dignity, their own language, their own music,

ML diverse personalities and history

CS and long before we came along. Yeah!

ML I think you mentioned in the whale article the possibility that whales have some sort of mystical sense. I mean certainly there are great apes that gaze at waterfalls as if in a state wonder, and elephants in Katy Payne’s book Distant Thunder, she’s also an organist. Did you know that?  but she’s an advisor for the Elephant Project. She says she’s seen elephants gazing at the sunset

CS It’s off the charts with elephants on this recent trip (to Kenya) in terms of the nuance of communication with each other about us, when the wild one would come back to the paddock down in Tsavo and those are the ones, the ones in the paddock were the ones on the verge to making a transition back to the wild, and you just see this massive group of matriarchs and bulls and young ones, and they’re all dying of thirst, but we’re right there, Nick the photographer and the keepers, and the only reason the wild ones approach is because the ones in the paddock are talking to them saying these humans are good. You can trust them. It’s so amazing and the interplay with each other

ML I’ve been listening to chickadees outside my back door at the feeders. The complexity and conversation of the bird language…I can tell that there are different things that they’re saying and I’ll never ever understand their language but at least I respect that they have one

CS Exactly

ML There are journalists who are journalists and then people who invoke layers of meaning, just the right word that’s not what you’d expect. That’s probably your poetry background as well

CS It is. I wonder sometimes whether I’m doing a disservice, like with Wachula, I could only write that book the way I wrote it and I think the press was hoping I’d do something more straightforward and informational, but I already did it in the article, even though my articles are not straightforward. I try to tell stories but you know, when it gets to the book, the only way I could write it was to imagine that night sitting in front of Roger  (the chimpanzee that had an empty gaze after years of solitude and exploitation) but then it gets to the point, Michael Pollan says to me, why don’t you just make it a novel? Then I always have to battle with that, should I just make it a novel, and then we called it the Wachula Woods Accord which drove my wife crazy because the press wouldn’t let me call it what I wanted to call it which was Humanzee. She said no woman would buy a book called Humanzee

ML You realize you’re at the forefront of shifting, of voicing something that is a zeitgeist. I hope it’s a zeitgeist.

Interdisciplinary artist and mezzo-soprano Miranda Loud explores through various media, the power of music, film and theater to inspire global stewardship, focusing on our kinship with other species. In addition to her singing and work as an organist, she has created several short films and multi-media performances for the non-profit she founded, NatureStage. Her work was recently highlighted by the San Francisco Chronicle in “Can Art Save the Planet?” and she is touring the country with a lecture/music/video presentation called “Saving the Elephants, Saving Ourselves: The Role of Art in Social Change” to encourage educators and general audiences to see the vital importance of arts education to heal our world and strengthen compassion and empathy, and to think outside the box. The University of North Texas recently added her to their roster of notable women in sustainability. You can read more about her current projects, Park Dreams and Elephantasia, on the NatureStage website at

Siebert’s articles can be found here:


06/09 Watching Whales Watching Us New York Times Magazine

03/09 Something Wild New York Times Magazine

05/07 Falling Down Green New York Times Magazine

 04/07 New Tricks New York Times Magazine

10/06 An Elephant Crackup? New York Times Magazine

01/06 The Animal Self  New York Times Magazine

About naturestage

Miranda Loud is the Founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit NatureStage based in Waltham, MA, and is an interdisciplinary artist - classical singer/organist/filmmaker/photographer and environmentalist. She writes about the vital need for education to include a more heart-centered approach to studying other species that leads to a sense of stewardship. Naturestage creates works that foster empathy and kinship with other species, using the emotional power of storytelling in different art forms, mainly film, photography and music. She is also a public speaker on art and social change. Her current projects include The One Language Project, Park Dreams, The Elephant Project, and Elephantasia which all use different art forms to encourage a mind shift in how we relate to other species by asking "How would the world be different if we viewed other species as someones instead of somethings? If, instead of drawing lines, we drew circles?"
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