Lily Tomlin gets right to the point at the start of "An Apology to Elephants," a new HBO documentary that she executive produced and narrates.
"I love elephants," she says. After you watch this tenderhearted and revelatory 40-minute film, there's a good chance you will, too.
Few creatures hold more fascination for humans than elephants, which have inspired great works of art and even been revered as gods. But they also have been the victims of appalling cruelty and exploitation.
"An Apology to Elephants" examines the ongoing horrors these majestic animals have suffered at the hands of zookeepers, circus officials and greedy ivory hunters.
We've come to expect Tomlin to provide us with plenty of laughter. But she's deadly serious when it comes to elephants, which she counts among "my favorite fellow Earthlings."
"Don't get me started. I can go on all day," she says during a phone interview. Tomlin hopes the documentary will serve as a "wake-up call" to viewers who might not know how much abuse elephants endure.
"When you go to a circus, you tend not to think about how they got that elephant to ride a bike or stand on its head. It's just very fun and so fabulous. I know I felt that way as a kid," she says. "But once you have a connection to what really goes on behind the scenes, you tend not to enjoy it as much."
"Apology" does what it can to bolster that connection. It contains scenes of training routines at zoos and circuses that are painful to watch. We're told that elephants are taken from their mothers as babies to be "broken down," beaten and dominated. They soon learn to fear the bull hook, a sharp-edged steel instrument used to make elephants submissive.
The experts interviewed in the film assert that many elephants suffer psychological trauma as well as physical ailments, due to inadequate living conditions in some zoos and circuses, where they live in constant fear.
But "Apology" also turns the spotlight on dedicated activists who are working to reverse the trend. The Oakland Zoo is held up as an example of an institution that is pioneering a more humane approach to managing captive elephants.
In 1991, an Oakland Zoo trainer was killed by an elephant. In the years since, adjustments have been made. Oakland now is regarded as a model for how elephants should be treated in captivity. The four African elephants housed there are managed by reward and positive reinforcement, rather than force, and have been given more than 6 acres for roaming.
Unfortunately, the Oakland Zoo is the exception rather than rule, according to Tomlin. She insists that officials representing most zoos and circuses "usually turn away and fight you every step of the way" when pushed to improve their standards.
They also uphold their use of captive elephants as a way to educate children. After all, most kids will never be able to see an elephant in its natural habitat.
"That's just a load of crap from people only concerned about making money," Tomlin says. "How do you explain the fact that kids know everything there is to know about dinosaurs, and they've never seen one? At a zoo or a circus, you're not observing elephants with their natural behavior, anyway."
'An apology to elephants'
When: 7 p.m. Monday