'Tyke Elephant Outlaw': Film Review

Tyke Elephant Outlaw - H 2015
Courtesy of Portland Film Festival
This harrowing documentary makes a powerful case for the banning of wild animals in live entertainment.

Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore's documentary recounts the 1994 story of an African circus elephant who killed his trainer in front of a horrified audience and subsequently ran wild on the streets of Honolulu before being shot and killed.

Is it a sad or hopeful thing that there's now a virtual subgenre of documentary films detailing the pernicious effects of using wild animals for entertainment purposes? Following on the heels of the controversy-producing Blackfish is Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore's equally powerful account of a notorious 1994 incident in which a circus elephant killed his trainer in front of a packed arena and was subsequently shot dead on the streets of Honolulu. Featuring disturbing archival footage depicting the tragedy in all its gory detail, Tyke Elephant Outlaw is a highly intense film that's not easy to watch.

That the events took place in public and were filmed practically from start to finish by private citizens and news organizations undeniably gives the film a particular dramatic potency. The backstory is that Tyke was captured as a baby in Mozambique in 1973 and shipped to the United States, where she became the property of the Hawthorn Corporation, which specializes in supplying wild animals to circuses.

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As the film makes clear, Tyke had a troubled history before the fateful incident, often rebelling at treatment that included being in chains for 22 hours a day and being disciplined by force.

"She was an unhappy camper," comments a former handler, Sally Joseph, who expresses deep remorse for following orders in the pachyderm's mistreatment.

A primary interview subject is Tyrone Taylor, one of the first African-American animal trainers, who literally ran away with the circus after witnessing a performance by Gunther Gebel-Williams, who became his mentor. Taylor had extensive experience with Tyke, and despite his affection for and gentle treatment of the animal he came to realized that trouble was brewing. Sixteen months before Honolulu, Tyke showed signs of rebellion in Altoona, Pennsylvania, although no one was hurt.

"Then I knew she was a runner," he says, before revealing that three months later, Tyke attacked a circus worker in North Dakota.  

After a brief teaser at the beginning, the film eventually gets around again to the Honolulu tragedy, with harrowing footage showing Tyke kicking around a young groom like a rag doll. When Tyke's trainer attempts to intervene, the 9,500 pound animal wearing a silly pink hat crushes him, killing him instantly. Enraged and disoriented, Tyke then storms out of the arena and tears through the city streets as people flee in terror. Eventually police arrive and begin shooting, firing 87 bullets into the massive creature until it collapses dead onto a car, bleeding profusely.

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It's then that the film fully delves into its true message, which is to decry the use of wild animals in live entertainments. Voices from both sides weigh in, including an operative for the circus industry who went undercover and infiltrated animal rights groups. Shortly after the Tyke incident, hearings were held in Honolulu to debate a proposed ban on the use of animals, which was was defeated. But as one commentator points out, it was still a victory, as no wild animals have appeared in live performances there ever since. The other good news is that the Hawthorn Corporation was found guilty in 2004 of multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act and was ordered to release its elephants to approved facilities. It's to be hoped that this cautionary and moving documentary will spread that cause even further.

Production: Jumping Dog Productions
Directors/producers: Susan Lambert, Stefan Moore
Director of photography: Simon Smith
Editor: Denise Haslem
Composer: Antony Partos

Not rated, 78 min.