Sophomore fights for end to elephant abuse, raises awareness through film

By Mazelle Etessami, Cherish Molezion and Lauren Sonnenberg

Juliette West ’14, star of the documentary advocating against elephant exploitation titled, “How I Became an Elephant,” spoke to over 1,200 students at Herbert Hoover Elementary School in San Francisco May 11. The movie was later screened at the Sausalito Film Festival May 12.

While on a trip to South East Asia in 2009, West met Lek Chailert, called Asia’s “Elephant Lady” for her work to protect elephants from illegal trade and abuse. This encounter inspired West to take action.

Directors Tim Gorski and Synthian Sharp and Producer Jorja Fox followed West as she discovered the threats of extinction elephants face.

As a 9-year-old animal lover, West worked for proper animal treatment and began raising money for a pet adoption center. At 13, West campaigned to move an elephant from the Los Angeles Zoo into a sanctuary by writing letters to city council members.

West was horrified to learn that elephants used for entertainment performances or to give rides are often victims of abuse. West said elephant captivity deprives elephants of the constant mental and social stimulation they require and the proper exercise and habitat they deserve. To domesticate them, elephants are often starved, beaten relentlessly and forced into a wooden cage called a crush box for up to a few weeks.

“The thing that struck me the most was that it was such a hidden thing,” West said. “Elephants in zoos were suffering and elephants who perform and give rides were abused so much. It really bothered me that it was such a well-kept secret, and the elephants deserve for it to be made public.”

She filmed the documentary with a crew of roughly 15 people for two weeks on location in Thailand.

In December 2011, the final cut of the documentary was completed and released. The film was recently screened at the Hot Docs Doc Shop in Toronto, Canada from April 26 to May 6. It was also screened at the LA Awareness Festival on May 6.

Since the film’s release, West has visited schools in California and Montana to educate students about the abuse of elephants.

West said young audiences are most important. Youths, who make up a large percentage of targeted consumers for circuses and zoos, she said, must understand that these public avenues for elephants are inhumane.