Nikita Dhawan speaks with Veronika Jancikova about Mara & Baby
June 25, 2023
Veronica is campaigning for the release of two elephants named Mara and Baby, who are currently confined in a zoo in Slovakia. The elephants were previously circus performers and have experienced cruel training and poor living conditions. Veronica aims to relocate them to a sanctuary where they can peacefully retire. She has received significant public support through a petition with over 65,000 signatures. The campaign is also seeking financial support to cover expenses related to the elephants' relocation. The zoo has stopped offering elephant rides due to a complaint filed by animal rights organizations.
Nikita: My name is Nikita Dhawan and today we have Veronica for the All About Elephants show. Veronica is a lawyer with a focus on environmental law and animal rights law and also a very passionate animal activist. She's quite recently initiated a campaign advocating for the release of Mara and Baby, two elephants confined in a zoo in Slovakia. I'm really excited to have you here today, Veronica. How are you?
Veronika: Hi Nikita. Thank you very much for having me on the show today. I'm good. How are you?
Nikita: I'm good. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming in today. Can you just start by telling us about your background and how you came about campaigning for Mara and Baby?
Veronika: Yes. So I am a UK lawyer focusing on environmental law and I'm very passionate about animal rights.
Me and my family have been vegan for 15 years, advocating not only for vegan diet, but also for plant-based and cruelty-free lifestyle. And therefore it's very important to me to address this cruelty issue and to advocate for animals and show that any animal abuse is wrong, whether it's for food, fashion or entertainment.
Because there is always cruelty involved. So I noticed these two elephants on the street of Bratislava, which is capital of Slovakia, when I visited my friends last year. And basically a lunch with friends and family turned into a rescue mission I am pursuing now with my campaign.
Nikita: Yeah. And can you tell us a bit more about these elephants' background and history, like where were they born and how long have they been in the zoo, etc.?
Veronika: Yes, definitely. So Mara and Baby are owned by a circus. They are circus elephants and they have been performing their entire life in circuses around Europe. So in 2019, circuses with animal acts were banned in Slovakia.
But the owners are still allowed to keep the animals and travel with them and exhibit them. So that's how Mara and Baby are still in this former circus, which is now called Zoo Park.
And it's like a roadside zoo traveling from town to town and exhibiting these two elephants and also other animals. So Mara and Baby are Asian female elephants. Both of them, they are girls.
Mara is over 50 years old. She was born in the wild, detained and brought to Europe as a baby, as a young elephant. And she has been abused as a circus elephant for her entire life.
Similar to Baby, she is over 40 years old. She was born already in captivity and spent her entire life in circus performing tricks.
Nikita: Wow, yeah, I feel like it's interesting that the circus became a zoo. I've never really seen that before. And I feel like a lot of the problems with the circus are still remaining, like the traveling and the exhibition. So I feel like, you know, on the exterior, they now call themselves a zoo for educational or conservational value.
But it's clear that their conditions are still not improved. So would you like to give more of a brief overview on what training of an elephant was like in a circus and how that's been in a zoo as well?
Veronika: So yes, Nikita, you are completely right. This business is not a zoo in any way. It's a form of circus and there is still a lot of traveling involved, which is very stressful for all the animals.
To give a brief overview, what does it mean for an elephant to perform in a circus? So these elephants need to be engaged in an enormously cruel training from a very young age.
They are mentally and physically broken during the training and investigations of international animal rights organizations prove that the training begins already between 18 and 24 months.
At this stage, the very young elephants are forcibly taken from their mothers. Their forelegs are tied in chains to a bar all day long for several months.
So all they can do during the day is to stay in one place on concrete floor.
This is very stressful for a young animal who is normally very active in the wild. Every day they would be engaged in various activities, roaming free through the wild, exploring the world, bathing, eating and playing, and also interacting with other elephants in the herd. So after several months in chains, they become mentally broken.
So they stop running away from the trainers when they are not chained. And this is the moment where the cruel training just begins. They are bound again by ropes and forced to learn how to perform tricks. They are beaten by hooks and starved along the training. And after a year or more of everyday torture, they are ready to perform tricks. And these tricks are unnatural for elephants. They are extremely stressful and very bad for their health and welfare. So this is this was the training of Mara and Baby.
This was happening in Europe and it's still happening in some states. And this cruel approach towards animals must stop.
Nikita: Yeah, definitely. And I think what you just described reminds me of a process called the crush often for elephants where they where their wild spirit is like tamed through that beating and through being chained.
And I feel like that taming is similar to what you said about them being mentally broken. And so can you also elaborate on what is their current condition like in terms of their enclosure size, flooring, the availability of a water body?
Like, would that be an improvement from the circus or is it generally still the same?
Veronika: Yes, I visited the place on several occasions and the conditions are very poor. It's it's not a zoo. It's it's a circus. The conditions are the same as in a circus. These elephants are locked most of the time in a truck. They are in a truck overnight and most of the daytime they only they are only released from the truck during the opening hours.
Where they are exhibited like outside. So, yeah, so this is really sad. So most of the time these elephants spent in a truck either traveling or just being locked, you know, standing there to elephants in one truck.
It's very sad.
In the wild elephants would walk most most of the day. They would bath and play, search for food and interact with other elephants and animals. So you can imagine how stressful and traumatize this life can be for these two girls who have been tortured since they were little babies.
Also they don't have proper food in the wild elephant eat a variety of plants, flowers, leaves, seeds, roots. Here in this roadside zoo, they are only fed on straw. They don't have access to the water all the time. I visited this place many times and I also stay there for the whole opening hours the whole afternoon and they after they closed and observed the elephants from behind behind the fence.
So they don't have constant access to water. They are fed only with straw, which is very sad.
So the conditions are really, really bad.
Nikita: Yeah, I mean, a truck sounds just terrible. I've never seen that before in a zoo and like you mentioned they're constantly moving around so I'm sure that's also very stressful for them and you said they're only left open in the visiting hours.
So it seems very clear that perhaps the zoo doesn't have their like welfare in mind but more of their interaction with the public and their exhibition so can you elaborate on how much interaction is permitted between these elephants in the public and what is that interaction like?
Veronika: Yes, so the public is encouraged to engage with the elephants through feeding. They feed them with fruits and vegetables. Visitors can buy at the entrance. The elephants love it, of course, because this is the only time they can eat something something different than, than a straw. When I visited them, we also bought fruits and veggies. And Baby was very very excited about it. She asked for more constantly and didn't even let Mara to have any of them. You know she even bounced her with her head to let her know that this fruit is only hers. So it's it's it was very heartbreaking to see like how desperate these elephants must be.
The zoo is open the roadside zoo is opened in the afternoon during the week. And since, and from 10am until late evening during the weekends. They are able to attract more visitors. So these are the days when the elephants are relatively, they are free they can walk free in their small enclosure.
Nikita: And throughout, you know, your visits to the zoo and just observing them in general. Can you describe if they've exhibited any behavioral, physical and mental abnormalities that you've noticed?
Veronika: Yes. So, most of the time, they just stand in one place, swinging from side to side, which, which is a sign of stereotyping behavior resulting from psychological stress resulted from trauma and the cruel training.
They were exhibiting signs of aggression toward each other, especially when we were feeding them so baby didn't want Mara to even to come closer and have any fruits or veggies. So they are definitely in very stressful mental state.
Nikita: Yeah, I feel like in the wild usually elephants, like female elephants when they're in herds they usually have more like choice and freedom and making those bonds with other elephants but just like looking at the lack of physical space and make sense how they would show signs of aggression toward each other. And now can you just maybe tell us more about your campaign like when did you start, how did you start how many people are involved?
Veronika: I started my campaign this year with the aim to rehome Mara and baby to a sanctuary, where they can peacefully retire. At the same time, I want to achieve a change in current law and ensure that no other wild animals will be abused in a similar way. I started my campaign internationally and at the moment, I ran this campaign by myself with few friends. And the priority for now is to find a final home for these elephants in a sanctuary and relocate them there. And for the future just to stop similar abuse.
Slovakia is a very good example for other European countries because they banned the use of wild animals, such as elephants, big cats, rhinos, and other animals in circuses.They banned in 2019. They also banned cruel training of these animals for entertainment purposes. And I believe we can achieve more with the campaign and also improve the living conditions of all animals that are captive in a similar way.
And that had animals who performed in circuses and are now being held in such a cruel roadside zoos.
Nikita: Yeah. And can you can you mention if our Mara and baby the only two elephants in Slovakia or are there more?
Veronika: Well, to my knowledge, they are the only two elephants in a roadside zoo. We have another two elephants, which are in normal zoo in the east of Slovakia. They are two African elephants, also girls.
Nikita: Okay. Okay. And you mentioned your just vision in general for the campaign that you would want them to be released. Have you yet identified a potential home for Mara and baby if they were to be released?
Veronika: Yes. So there are many sanctuaries around the world. There are centuries in the United States, in Asia, in Cambodia, for example, we have a sanctuary in France, which is very nice sanctuary, who would be able to potentially take care of these elephants if they are released. But all depends on the final health of the elephants when they are released on the it depends on the resources as well. So the final details will be will be confirmed during the campaign, but there definitely will be space for them.
Nikita: Okay, great. And you also mentioned like in this process, like what has been the support like from local and international organizations and at the public as well. I mean, you've achieved more than 65,000 signatures on the petition so far, which is very impressive.
Nikita: So what is the support been like?
Veronika: So the public has been showing an incredible support for the campaign. And I would like to thank all the supporters who have been supporting these rescue so far, whether they are support supporters, signing the petition, or supporting us on GoFundMe. So, really, within a few weeks, we were able to get over 65,000 signatures.
And currently we are fundraising as well, which was also also big initiative of the supporters, many people wanted wanted to support us financially as well. So I am in touch with local and international organizations at the same time, who support the rescue within their capacity. But at the moment, at this stage, none of the animals rights organizations participate in the campaign.
Nikita: And you've mentioned finding a sanctuary, I can imagine that is it's usually one of the challenges for these types of campaigns.
Can you talk about if there were some other challenges that you faced?
Veronika: So, so far, the campaign is evolving very well. We are at the beginning of the campaign. Resources, of course, are the biggest challenge.
And of course, finding the final place with them. But I communicate with experts from around the world and plan to engage more people as the campaign evolves and as there are more resources available.
Yeah, and I'm sure, you know, as our listeners hear this story, there'll definitely be more involvement, engagement and more animal, local animal organizations will start to step in. So we can hope for that.
Nikita: I also wanted to ask what your interaction has been with the authorities so far. Have you gotten in touch with them of the zoo and what is their response been?
Veronika: Yes. So last year, together with animal rights organization in Slovakia, we submitted a complaint to local authorities about especially about these elephants giving rights to the public, to the children and to adults. So after the complaint, the elephants are not giving elephant rights anymore to the public, which is a great success. So they are mostly only exhibited for the visitors.
And yes, we are planning more actions with local authorities and government, but everything will be announced due to course on our website, and we will update our supporters about our current actions.
Nikita: Yeah, I mean, it's such a great achievement that you've been able to stop the elephant rights. That's definitely one of the most significant problems. And I feel like just many people listening to us would be inspired by your story. I think there's so many activists and people around the world who like you, they want to help animals without necessarily being a part of an animal organization or NGO. So based on your experience, what would be your message for others who also want to help?
Veronika: So if you can sign our petition, share our petition, our fundraising page and support us this way, stay updated. And of course, if you see any any case of animal abuse, I would recommend to document to document the situation, make pictures, videos, and send it to local and international organizations.
Send it to send local authorities to make them aware that this kind of abuse is happening.
Nikita: Yeah, definitely. And you mentioned signing the petition as one of the ways to help out your campaign. How are the other ways? What are the other ways we can help? And you can also let us know any like website or social media handles that the listeners can join to engage with the campaign.
Veronika: Yes, you can visit our website, which is freemarababy.com. You can find us on social media as well. Under the hashtag #freemarababy.
You can find us on Twitter and Instagram and also on YouTube, where I will be posting regularly on new pictures, videos and updates about this elephant.
You can also find us on GoFoundMe website. Where we are running the campaign to raise funds for Mara and Baby. And, yeah, maybe it will be great if you include these links and people can click on them.
Nikita: Yeah, definitely. We'll link the handles and the website links in the description. And I mean, just thank you so much for coming in today, Veronica. It was great to hear your story. I think it's always nice to connect with activists who are making change in their own local communities. And I think all of us, like all the people I've listened in the past, we've had similar challenges. So hopefully we can all support each other.
And the initiative and progress that you've made so far is just amazing. So, yeah, just thank you so much for coming in.
Veronika: Thank you very much for the invitation. Thank you very much Nikita as well that you are advocating for the animals, you are inspiring many people as well.
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