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Saving elephants, saving ourselves

WE PET THEM, we eat them, we idolize them, we eradicate them. We hunt them to near extinction, then carefully reintroduce them into the wild, then hunt them some more.

WE PET THEM, we eat them, we idolize them, we eradicate them. We hunt them to near extinction, then carefully reintroduce them into the wild, then hunt them some more.

Our fellow animals are often at the mercy of homo sapiens, and we aren't always so wise in how we deal with the power we have over the rest of the planet, but we can change. We are changing.

Last week Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it is phasing elephants out of its productions and sending them to the Center for Elephant Conservation, in Florida, to live out their lives in an environment more suitable to their nature.

Circuses and zoos have displayed elephants for centuries. People are drawn to them, which makes the animals a source of revenue that's hard to let go. In the U.S. in recent years, some (not nearly all) zoos and circuses have improved the conditions in which their elephants live, trying to make captivity more humane. Some zoos increased the size of enclosures, for instance, but captivity is still harmful to the animals.

Elephants are huge and they need space to roam in. They're family-oriented, but captivity usually deprives them of that comfort. They're intelligent and subject to psychological as well as physical damage.

Woodland Park Zoo, in Seattle, is sending its two female elephants to the Oklahoma City Zoo to join a family of elephants there. It's been a long journey to that decision.

The zoo got its first elephant in 1921, according to a chronology on its website, and it was a big deal, with a parade to celebrate the event. Its second elephant was acquired as a humanitarian act in 1932, when Mayor John Dore confiscated an elephant that was being held in deplorable conditions by a traveling show that made a stop in downtown Seattle.

There was no question even back then what animal abuse looked like, but we've expanded our understanding of what is harmful or wrong as we have learned more about animals. In the 1970s, zoos around the world began thinking more about the welfare of their animals and updating their facilities to make them feel and look more natural.

And now, there is a growing sense that even fixing up a zoo may not be enough to make captivity justifiable. Seattle's mayor and City Council wanted the Woodland Park elephants sent to a sanctuary, where there would be more elephants and more space. That might have been somewhat better for elephants already in captivity, but the ultimate solution is to keep elephants free from now on.

A number of zoos in the U.S., Canada, Britain and India have closed their elephant exhibits in recent years.

Sometimes outside pressure propels change and sometimes the zookeepers' own regard for wildlife does.

We humans seem to be becoming more thoughtful about relationships to other animals, though there are many species that, if they could speak, would surely urge us to speed up the evolution in our thinking and behavior.

The long list of species at risk of extinction includes black rhinos, bonobos, mountain gorillas, bluefin tuna and snow leopards. Accelerated climate change is having a devastating effect on marine life.

Elephants in the wild are being killed by the thousands for their tusks because the ivory is highly valued in some Asian countries. The ivory trade thrives on a mix of African poverty and Asian wealth, rising as China's wealth has increased.

There's a lot of work to be done on relationships within our species, but we can't wait for human Nirvana before we address our impact on the rest of the animal kingdom. And I think that adopting a healthier attitude toward animals and toward other people can even be mutually reinforcing.

Some of the smartest efforts to combat elephant poaching take into account the needs of the people who have elephants in their backyards (sometimes literally) in South Asia and in Africa. These efforts include devising improved methods for preventing elephants from trampling crops, and sharing income from wildlife safaris with nearby villages - practical steps that reflect a respect for both humanity and nature.

Governments, including our own, need to work to end the ivory trade entirely. And it's important for citizens to be aware of the ways in which human activity harms other animals and the planet, our contribution to speeding up climate change being a prime example. Awareness can lead to pressure on governments, businesses and other institutions to change, as well as change in our personal behavior.

A story last week said that Americans spent $58 billion caring for pets last year, including spa trips and cute collars.

We know how to care - we just need to spread the love.