THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
A true animal
rights hero, an
epic marketing strategy, or both?
American entertainer, Cher, gripped the global spotlight with
her involvement in the "Free Kaavan" campaign. But is she
truly the selfless hero that she's been made out to be?
BY MAGGIE PADLEWSKA
Cher speaking with Darrick Thomson moments before elephant Kaavan is released into his temporary enclosure at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. NOV.30.2020 ©MaggiePadlewska
APRIL 22, 2020 / SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
Cher did good, she backed and helped raise awareness and support for the long-fought struggle by countless people to "Free Kaavan." She also put an animal rights story, herself and her brand centre-stage in the Western, and worldwide, media spotlight.
So what does that say about the media and society today?
My profound sense of joy, relief and amazement rapidly morphed into frustration, and admittedly a mild case of self-contained anger, when the scene of an epic non-fiction finale was transformed into a movie set.
It was after sunset, on the evening of November 30th, 2020, about five hours after the now-world famous Asian elephant Kaavan landed at the Siem Reap International Airport in Cambodia. He was visibly exhausted, still standing in his metal crate, the one he’d been confined to for about 24 hours while being transported from a decrepit zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan, to his final destination at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.
From a small opening on the side of his crate, amidst the chaos that surrounded him as he was being lowered to safety on the ground, Kaavan reached out his trunk desperate to touch it it seemed, grasping and dragging sand into his metal container.
You may be familiar with this story. It gripped global headlines at the end a grim COVID-infested year, with a part of it now immortalized in the recent release of “Cher & The World’s Loneliest Elephant,” a Smithsonian Channel production that premiered on Paramount+ in honour of Earth Day.
Cher talks to Mr. X and Mr. Sok Hong at next to Kaavan's travel crate at the Siem Reap International Airport.
People look on as Darrick Thomson removes the Kaavan's restraints . NOV.30.2020 ©MaggiePadlewska
It was suspenseful, a tense final few moments, that would officially mark the end of the elephants's tragic life of neglect in captivity.
After more than three decades at the now defunct Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, a complicated international flight and journey, Kaavan was about to be released into his temporary enclosure located within the 30,000 acre Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) and conservation area.
CWS' Darrick Thomson, tasked with the mammoth job of overseeing the preparations and the final chapter of the elephant's journey, promptly set off to remove the tethers from Kaavan's legs.
CWS Darrick Thomson racing to remove Kaavans restraints. NOV.30.2020 ©MaggiePadlewska
Mark Cowne, Cher and Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne. NOV.30.2020 ©MaggiePadlewska
But a few minutes earlier, Cher interrupted. She called Darrick over.
"I don't feel safe..." she said and went on explaining that her filmmaking crew was still undecided of her exact position during a scene that they needed to capture.
"You're not (safe). No one is in here when he comes out. Absolutely no one." Darrick replied, visibly annoyed and eager to get back to freeing Kaavan for his restrictive transport capsule.
A little after 8pm, the elephant was ready to be released, but was instead kept standing and distracted with treats by CWS staff Pedro Vella and colleagues through the front opening of his crate as Cher performed her scene behind him, for her camera crew, in his enclosure.
His release was delayed by about three quarters of an hour.
This may not sound like a big deal to some, but it sure was for me. This pop star placed herself before the welfare of an exhausted and confined animal that she credits herself with saving. I was appalled.
While I understand the work, efforts and in this case 'staging' that go into producing big budget and beautifully crafted documentaries, this was simply not the moment to do so.
And while I appreciate and applaud Cher's talents and commendable
accomplishments, I have no personal feelings towards her, I don't know her. But what I witnessed that evening, frustrated me to core...thus triggering my interest in following how the public and widespread narrative of her relationship to Kaavan's story would unfold.
Global mainstream media outlets sa-li-va-ted over this story.
However, none of my media colleagues or executive producers (in leading newsrooms) who I had reached out to about this story prior to Kaavan's arrival had any interest in it - until, of course, the day of.
When word of Cher's presence in Cambodia was confirmed, the media went wild, and my phone started buzzing like mad.
"Cher Saved the World Loneliest Elephant" was proclaimed via the dominant theme in headlines. Articles were flooded with inaccuracies and misinformation. And, there was little if no mention of the actual effort and six-year struggle that took place long before Cher's involvement in the quest to rescue and relocate the bull elephant from that dark chapter of his life.
Thankfully the tone and wording "helped save" then began to appear.
Kaavan's successful transfer to from a concrete cell to a wildlife sanctuary began in 2015, with countless people involved.
People like Dr. Samar Khan, a young vet student at the time, who saw Kaavan in chains during her visit to Pakistan. She launched the "Free Kaavan" campaign and a petition that gained thousands of supporters, capping off with nearly half a million signatures by the time the campaign was declared a victory.
Few media outlets mentioned the names of the Pakistani activists Faryal and Arslan Gauhart, "Friends of Islamabad Zoo" or the countless people who supported, protested and took to the streets in Islamabad, and around the world in front of Pakistani embassies calling for Kaavan's release. Few mentioned the names of Kaavan’s legal team Anees Jilani and Owais Awan, or Mohebullah Naveed (a young boy who visited Kaavan every day before going to school).
In November 2020, animal rights defenders celebrated a great achievement - Asian elephant Kaavan's successful and epic rescue and relocation mission from #Pakistan to #Cambodia. Today, I take a moment to again congratulate all the amazing people who fought for Kaavan’s release (this is for you!): the tireless animals rights activists, Dr. Samar Khan who launched a social media campaign and petition to “#FreeKaavan” in 2015, its 400,743 signatories, Faryal and Arslan Gauhart, Kaavan’s legal team Anees Jilani and Owais Awan, Mohebullah Naveed who visited Kaavan every day before going to school,
activists, countless donors and supporters, those who took the streets protesting his confinement around the globe, the Islamabad High Court and Pakistani Government officials who agreed to Kaavan’s release, and of course, the animal welfare groups
(Dr. Amir Khalil, Marion Lombard, Dr. Frank Göritz, and their entire team) and Free The Wild Foundation co-founded by #Cher, Gina and Mark Cowne. And here in Cambodia - the amazing people, including Darrick Thomson and Pedro Vella, at
who are currently in the fin
Not when I reached out to my media colleagues (CBC, CNN, etc.) telling them about an incredible animal rescue and relocation mission that had been years in the making ("we're too busy
"Stunning images" of Cher standing in what appears
Kaavan was about to be released into his temporary enclosure within the 30,000 acre Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) and conservation area.
Samar Khan / 2015. (Photo supplied by Dr. Samar Khan)
student at the time, named Samar Khan.
"I started a petition after seeing Kaavan in chains in 2015, that set off the 'Free Kaavan' campaign, and I used the fanbase of Kaavan to start a social media campaign on his behalf" Dr. Khan tells me via video.
Within a few weeks, Dr. Khan's "Help Free Kaavan The Elephant From 28 Years of Solitary Confinement" petition gained thousands of signatures, and in 2020 reached it's goal - declaring a victory with a final tally of 400,746 supporters.
"I learned a lot about patience, persistence...and I learned a lot about empathy, especially from the Pakistani people. They are some of the most compassionate people you'll ever meet. Actually the voices that have been the loudest for Kaavan, have been Pakistani...because they did fight really, really hard, and this wouldn't have happened without them" she said.
"Free Kaavan" protest in in Lahore, Pakistan. (Photo supplied by Dr. Samar Khan)
Dr. Khan's "Free Kaavan" campaign was huge, inspiring countless people to fight for the release of this magnificent sentient being.
"We had a lot of volunteers on the ground who worked really tirelessly. Like Faryal Gauhart who got the issue through senate. Wwe had Mohebullah who was actually a schoolboy who would go in the mornings before class and help Kaavan and visit him, we had his amazing legal team Anees Jilani and also Owais Awan who actually got everything done and got the through to fruition and got him freed in the end" said Dr. Khan.
The struggle to free Kaavan was a tireless six year effort, by countless people, including those who took to the streets and protested around the globe.
"I think it was like 11 countries...people went to their Pakistani embassies and protested for Kaavan, I think that when I realized that this was a really bid deal, and that actually got him unshackled. So I think it was January of 2016 that we finally got the chains off."
Perhaps it's time, therefore, to ask ourselves:
Did the world's most respected media outlets do those amazing people justice?
I do not mean to diminish Cher's contributions, involvement in the campaign to free Kavaan, or the fact that people with star-power and fame such as hers, are indeed great promoters of important causes.
But, in this case, I do question all that follows.
Marion Lombard and Dr. Frank Göritz of FOUR PAWS, speak with Cher shortly after the arrival of Kaavan (safely in his crate - backround) at the Siem Reap International Airport on Novemeber 30th, 2020. ©Maggie Padlewska
Buddhist Monks bless Kaavan (in crate) on the tarmac of thee Siem Reap International Airport. ©Maggie Padlewska