Combating the Selective Use of Science: the extraordinary case of elephants in captivity

by Sharon Maree Carlini

Institution: University of Otago
Year: 0
Keywords: elephants; captive elephants; dominant narrative; zoo; circus; ankus; bullhook; animal encounter; encounter value; communication; discourse; science communication
Record ID: 1298748
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10523/4893


It is not uncommon for scientists to find their work, in its entirety or in part, becoming enmeshed in highly politicised issues. In the 21st Century, given the ease with which we can source information and the rapidity of the changes in the information flow it becomes simple for non-specialists to knit vaguely related ideas together to create what might appear to be a plausible story or narrative. The aim can be to borrow legitimacy from science to give credence to a cause. This thesis explores the question: Can science communicators combat politicised discourse and narratives where the science is being ignored, smothered, or at least used selectively, by those involved? One area for study in this regard involves captive elephants. By focusing on two distinct groups within this discourse, animal rights on one side and elephant advocates within zoos and circuses on the other, this thesis presents some of the narratives which could be better informed if the relevant science became part of the discourse. Central to this debate is the role of the bullhook or ankus in elephant management; central because it is at the core of many decisions facing the zoos and circuses, and demonstrates how emotion may have obscured or sidelined the science. Evidence is also presented on the value of encounters with animals and the animal-human connection that evolves as a result. The available evidence suggests that these encounters may be instrumental in changing attitudes and guiding the future action of the people experiencing such encounters. These encounters can occur in many situations, however the educational programmes provided by zoos offer one very accessible environment in which they can occur. While critics suggest there is no evidence to support the effectiveness of zoo educational programmes, in this thesis evidence is presented to the contrary, and prompts the question: ‘Why are zoos not effectively promoting this important component of their work?’ In conclusion, this thesis proposes that effective communication techniques must be authentic and transparent, and delivered through a clearly devised plan. The examination of the current narrative and discourse regarding the use of the bullhook or ankus provides an opportunity to evaluate that particular narrative and discourse, the related science involved and leads to suggestions as to how that science might be heard in the discourse through revised and targeted narratives.