The cow elephant’s active baby boy had been running around the zoo compound like normal all day – but not anymore. Her calf had been lying on the ground for a nap, but now he wouldn’t wake up. Her baby wasn’t responding to her trunk’s touch, and her concern was growing. Suddenly, though, a familiar face appeared to offer assistance.
On May 23, 2016, a video uploaded to YouTube hit social media squarely in the feels. The clip in question was filmed at Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic, and its stars were a mother-and-son pair of Indian elephants. Having first opened in 1931, Prague Zoo welcomed its first elephant two years later. Now, the attraction receives more than a million visitors a year, and it was one of the guests who was on hand to shoot the footage that day.
The elephants stars of the film are Janita, the proud mommy, and her baby, Max; camera-shy dad, Mekong, did not feature. According to the video’s description on YouTube, Max “spends most of the day in outdoor areas running and frolicking around.” And there seems to be a lot of space for him to explore and enjoy.
The video features Prague Zoo’s Elephant Valley – a large habitat specially designed for its pachyderm residents which opened in 2013. It is the Czech Republic’s biggest elephant compound and is the proud home of the first of the species to have been both conceived and born in the country: Max. The baby was born on April 5, 2016, making him just over one year old in the YouTube footage.
Eight elephants make up the herd in Elephant Valley – Mekong, Shanti, Gulab, Donna, Tonya, Tamara, Janita and baby Max. The facility is part of Prague Zoo’s contribution to defending animal species that are sadly in danger of becoming extinct. The zoo also has breeding programs to aid conservation.
Indian elephants are classified as endangered on the red list of threatened species provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The events captured on film at Prague Zoo that day, then, must have come as a shock to concerned onlookers.
In the video, we see the male calf sprawled out on the ground after a busy bout of play. His mother stays by his side looking anxious. But while Janita stands vigil, her baby is shown making worrying movements.
Yes, Max’s little body is seen twitching occasionally, and mommy elephant seems to become distressed. After wandering around looking almost as if she was seeking help, Janita returns to her little one’s prone position and tries to wake him – to no avail.
Indeed, when mommy reaches out and touches her baby with her trunk, Max doesn’t stir at all. And when Janita’s efforts to rouse her calf fail, the poor mother appears to start to panic. Thankfully, however, help is at hand. As mommy waits seemingly helplessly, some zoo keepers enter the frame.
In fact, Janita appears to be so happy to see the keepers that she actually walks part way with them towards her baby. What must have seemed strange to onlookers, though, is that the keeper who approaches Max doesn’t look overly concerned – the reason for which soon became clear.
The keeper is seen placing his hand under the baby elephant and begins to nudge him gently, but nothing happens. Then when his efforts to rouse the calf are met with failure, the man begins to shake a little harder. And while it takes some work, finally he gets a response from Max.
As the keeper walks away smiling, the baby elephant quickly gets to his feet as if nothing had happened – to the audible relief of the watching public. It would appear that mommy’s distress was the natural over-reaction of a worried parent. Max, it appears, is just a very deep sleeper.
The video’s description says it all. “After a day’s ‘work’ sometimes [the calf] sleeps so soundly his mother can’t wake him up,” it explains. “But the keepers are always there to help.” The heart-melting video ends with elephants and keepers walking happily across the enclosure together.
So is it normal for Janita to have been so worried about her sleeping baby? Well, Canisius Ambassadors for Conservation, an animal advocacy group based at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, describes the relationship between an elephant cow and its calf as “the closest [bond] of any animal.” In fact, these strong bonds with friends and family are one of the main reasons that elephants are so relatable to animal lovers.
Janita and Max’s video has captured hearts across the internet and received more than five million views since its upload. But it also caused some division and controversy among social media users. Some viewer thought the whole episode was very touching, while others noticed something deeply sinister that disturbed them.
The film clearly shows the Prague keepers carrying spiked poles known as a bullhooks or elephant goads. The implements are notorious among animal welfare activists for being used as weapons of control against elephants by abusive handlers. On the other hand, some people have defended the items as being merely training tools.
Their use has caused a lot of conflict in the upload’s comments. One user asked, “Why do they have those abusive hooks in their hands?” while another said, “The mother elephant didn’t get close because the humans are holding large metal hooks.”
Other commenters argued that the carrying of bullhooks was purely for precaution, in case of an attack. “They have to carry hooks in case something should go wrong. Those are wild animals after all,” one argued. “Even at my zoo they must carry them… just for safety, and those elephants are tame as.”
The debate about the use of bullhooks in looking after elephants will no doubt rage on. But while there’s no argument that the tools have been used for abuse by others in the past, there is no evidence that this is the case at Prague Zoo. In fact, it was rated as the fourth-best zoo in the world by comparison website Trip Advisor in 2015.
Thanks to the conservation efforts of responsible zoos, there is still hope for endangered species, including the wonderful Indian elephant. It would certainly be magnificent to see them restored to their former glory one day, free from the threat of extinction. And babies like cute sleepyhead Max deserve to have that chance.