The heart of the story should firmly be the welfare of South Africa’s elephants. However, right now, whilst opposing sides yell across zero middle ground, there is the issue of why a 2008 incident of animal abuse rears it’s ugly head now, 6 years later. There must be punishment but motive (rather than justice) has sent this story in different directions on social media. Hopefully, when all blogs are added together, this story will contain one direction.
It has been stated by the Knysna Elephant Park (KEP) that photos and videos taken during that contentious period are not reflective of their policy nor the current health of the elephants in their care. But the fact is that the National Council for SPCAs (NSPCA) has laid charges against them and that Greg Vogt, the ex-manager of KEP said that “the facts the NSPCA brought to me, and asked me to comment on, were well informed and accurate.”
Lisette Withers, owner of the KEP (and previously of Elephants of Eden, where the abuse took place), strongly denies this. She has gained a lot of online support from locals. After a phone call conversation, i sent her emailed questions which she responded to with the assistance from her PA, Charmaine Rumbelow, and KEP researcher, Dr. Debbie Young [which explains the occasional third person answer].
It is obvious that Greg Vogt and Lisette Withers are at loggerheads. Although, as said, that should not distract from the bigger issues, it is important to eventually understand where truth lies so that vindication or guilt can be appropriately weighed and acted upon.
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Regards elephant abuse at Elephants of Eden (EoE), the park you have now sold, you alleged disinformation and revenge by two people. You pointed fingers at a “disgruntled employee” whom you later identified as Greg Vogt. He was then your General Manager at Knysna Elephant Park (KEP) and is now Chairman of the Board of Knysna Tourism. You have also accused Gerhard van Rooyen, the owner of some of the hurt elephants (and Indalu Game Reserve which is currently in liquidation).
What is their motivation for damaging yours and Knysna Elephant Park’s reputation?
Their policy is for wild animals to be in the wild. Their allegations against us are linked to this policy. They want to block us from getting permits and associated paperwork and force us to a point where we can no longer have public visiting us. The NSPCA appears to be well known for their scandalous (and often misleading) awareness campaigns that they use to raise money. You only have to see some of the comments on their Facebook to see that this tactic has been used in many other cases.
Do you accept any blame for the abuse which occurred in 2008 on Elephants of Eden, your property?
We do not accept any blame. We acknowledge that it took place – at Elephants of Eden; and not the Knysna Elephant Park, as alleged by the NSPCA. This abuse did not take place at Knysna Elephant Park. I would never condone this type of abuse.
After interviewing you, the Knysna-Plett Herald stated: “Some of the elephants were owned by Gerhard van Rooyen, owner of Indalu Safaris near Mossel Bay, not by KEP.” But that would also mean that some elephants were owned by you. How many elephants were abused and how many were yours?
[this question left unanswered]
How long was it before the abuse was discovered and whose fault was it that it took so long?
An elephant’s skin is very thick and this is why the injuries were not immediately visible or apparent. Approximately a week after Sias [van Rooyen] returned from leave, he noticed that the elephants were looking uncomfortable and swellings were starting to develop. This is when Sias investigated further and the story emerged. Veterinary care was started immediately by the Knysna Elephant Park – cleaning wounds, pain medication and other veterinary treatment.
Who was the boss of the guilty staff members and was he on the property during the abusive period, and where is he now?
As previous press statements have stated, these staff were employed by Gerhard van Rooyen. You would have to ask Mr van Rooyen where he was during this time. He owned Indalu Game Reserve in Mossel Bay, which is now in liquidation. His present location is not known to us.
As the owner of EoE and KEP, how did you handle the matter? Did you document the abuse and report such to the NSPCA or any other relevant organisations? If not, why not?
The abuse was documented but not reported. The priority was to the elephants. The immediate reaction was to deal with the staff concerned and to urgently get the elephants to a safe place where they could be given the care they needed. Even back then, the owners doubted the motives of the NSPCA – they had previous encounters with NSPCA over other wild elephant cases (the Tuli elephant case; and the burnt Pilansberg elephants) and their lack of insight and experience with elephants proved that they were not capable of effectively dealing with any elephant cases (Tuli/Pilansberg). Some of these elephants actually died through inept decisions made by the NSPCA. My thoughts were do I want to deal with the politics and agendas of the NSPCA or do I want to focus on looking after my ellies?
You placed Greg Vogt at the scene, stating he was the trainer of the trainer (Sias van Rooyen, brother of the owner of the elephants). Greg Vogt contradicts this, saying that his role was only at KEP, not at EoE. Please explain the contradiction.
We did not state that we put Greg Vogt at the scene. We stated that Sias was under the guidance of Greg Vogt. He was the manager of KEP, however, as an associated facility, the management of EOE also fell to him during this time. One of the KEP initiatives started at EOE was Africademy, which was to run wildlife and conservation courses. This was to be run by Greg Vogt, so he was present at EOE extensively during these early stages of course and product development. Sias van Rooyen, elephant manager at EOE, can attest to this.
The NSPCA has laid charges against you, your staff and the park based on video footage they have received. Who, exactly, has been charged and is Greg Vogt on that list?
We have still not received any formal charges. As such, we are unaware of the list and who is on it.
What are you currently taking action in court against Greg Vogt for?
This is sub-judice and I cannot comment on it.
You haven’t disputed the video footage so does that mean that you have seen it?
No, we have not seen any video footage, nor have we received formal notification of the charges.
This was the second time you have denied the NSPCA access to your property. Why? Surely you realise that action suggests you have something to hide?
We have nothing to hide but we do question the motives behind these visits. We have been visited often, at both KEP and EOE, and the NSPCA have never found anything to substantiate any of their allegations. On this particular occasion, Mrs Withers admits she had grown frustrated with the attitude displayed and continual lies by the NSPCA towards her and her business. She has invited them to participate in constructive discussion on numerous occasions. The NSPCA has refused to participate in these types of constructive interaction.
We also question their experience with regard to elephant welfare and husbandry. We do not believe that the NSPCA has the necessary qualifications and expertise to objectively conduct an inspection of our facilities and/or our elephants.
It must also be noted that the abuse took place at EOE in 2008. The incident where the NSPCA was refused entry took place in 2013 and 2014. How are they related, as alleged by the NSPCA in their statement?
Has there been any relationship, interaction or cooperation with with Indalu Game Reserve and its owner, Gerhard van Rooyen, since the elephant abuse in 2008? If so, why?
The full story of the relationship (and the breakdown thereof) between us and Gerhard van Rooyen is detailed in the press release. It is this bad blood that has led to these false allegations. A court interdict is in place for us to relocate the elephants from Indalu to KEP and Gerhard van Rooyen has reacted by sending images from 2008 (not at KEP) to the NSPCA.
Greg Vogt denies that he was the ‘whistleblower’, as you claimed, regarding the controversial 2013 transfer of the 4 baby elephants from Sandhurst Safaris to EoE but claims that he was against it and it was one of the reasons why he quit. Did he express any of this to you and do you have proof that he was the ‘whistleblower’?
No, at no time did he indicate this. The arrival of these elephants had nothing to do with him resigning. He was an integral part of the permit application process with regard to these elephant, a process which was months in the making. If he was unhappy with this process, why did he not resign sooner?
His resignation was related to the fact that we found out that he was conducting clandestine elephant relocations without our knowledge. Five days after he resigned, he was involved, with the NSPCA, in the relocation of Thandora [the elephant] from the Bloemfontein Zoo to Gondwana Game Reserve. He had been planning this for months, behind the backs of the owners and staff of KEP. Initial discussions had taken place between Greg, AERU and the zoo that KEP assist with her relocation. Greg then took it upon himself to organise this relocation independently, excluding KEP and AERU. Darryl Barnes, from the Bloemfontein Zoo, was even led to believe that he was still working with KEP, during her relocation. This was an operation apparently fully supported and funded by the NSPCA. Thandora died a few months after relocation from a botulism infection. We have been led to believe that this infection was caused by her feeding from rubbish bins and dumps, after breaking out of her enclosure.
What do you see as his motivation to tell NSPCA about the Sandhurst transfer?
Unfortunately, his exact motivation behind this remain unclear to us. His relationship with the NSPCA dates back to the Thandora relocation, as detailed above. Is his motivation related to his resignation, which was not under favourable circumstances? These are the reasons we refer to him as a disgruntled ex-employee.
What was your role in the transfer of the elephants?
Communications with owners, permit applications etc.
How can the transfer be considered illegal if Cape Nature gave you permits?
It cannot be considered illegal. All permits from all Provinces are in place
You said that transferring them saved their lives. Why were they to be killed?
This has been well detailed in previous press stories. They were due to be culled because the owners of the farm wanted to close down their hunting concession and convert to cattle farming. We wanted to save them and offer them a good home.
You claim to use positive reinforcement to train your elephants. Provide examples of this.
Positive reinforcement works to increase the probability of the behaviour repeating itself by giving the animal a favourable stimulus, following the performance of the correct behavioural response. Positive re-inforcers are seen to be something the elephant wants more of or likes/enjoys:
- Pat (tactile contact)
Other positive reinforcers used during animal training include an opportunity to play, a favourite toy or release into a favourite space.
Positive reinforcement allows the animal to cooperate voluntarily. By using positive reinforcers to train, the animal experiences less stress and/or anxiety during training procedures. By making training a positive, rewarding experience, so the animal is encouraged to participate more readily and to try new behaviours more readily. Positive reinforcement has been shown to have several other benefits:
- Increased mental stimulation
- An opportunity to work for food
- Greater choice and control over daily events
- Increased psychological well being
- Improved relationships between animals and staff
Surely riding elephants doesn’t further environmentalism and study of these animals?
We don’t claim that it does. Elephants have been ridden for thousands of years. It is a matter of choice – some people want to, others don’t. Interestingly enough, Marcelle Meredith, of the NSPCA, has actually been to KEP and ridden an elephant.
I’m no expert but in my visit to the park, the elephants all looked healthy and comfortable in their large field. However, all the handlers carried sticks. Why?
The bullhook is actually an internationally recognised tool in the handling of elephants. It is specially designed with the welfare and safety of both elephants and staff in mind.
It can be used in the right way; and, unfortunately, can also be used in the wrong way.
It extends the handler’s reach so that the handler may touch specific points on the elephant’s body, as a way of signalling to the elephant what the handler is asking it to do; much like a horse’s bridle and bit. Protocol requires that unnecessary force must be avoided and only recognised cue points on the elephant’s body are allowed to be used. These movements are paired with verbal commands and positive reinforcement such as praise or food. In this way, the need for physical contact is reduced, as the elephant learns to associate the command with the reward. The elephants at KEP are also trained to pick it up and familiarize themselves with it so they become accustomed to it as a tool and not a weapon.
Also, elephants were climatised and trained at EoE, not KEP, so how do you respond to critics who say looking at the beauties of KEP is irrelevant?
[this question left unanswered]
International media has only jumped, in a big way, onto a one-sided (against you) tabloid version. How many asked for your input? How do you overcome bad publicity that has gone viral?
Many of the larger, recognised newspapers have phoned us to get our story. However, the majority of the internet based publications and social media sites and blogs have chosen to only publicise one side of the story, which contains, as we now know, many inaccuracies and untruths. Very few of them have contacted us directly, rather choosing to perpetuate the NSPCA statement. It is a poor reflection on the quality of journalism in the modern age! But, as we all know, sensationalism sells newspapers.
Many international volunteers that have worked at KEP have jumped to your defence and the good treatment of the elephants. And over 700 people joined your Facebook support page within 24hrs. It would suggest that none of them have ever seen an elephant abused at KEP (in fact, their comments are glowing). How does their support make you feel?
The fact that someone out there decided to create this page for us; and the massive support shown by our volunteers and friends, is an indication of who we are and what we do.
The volunteers are allowed 24-hour access to our elephants – they watch and observe our elephants throughout the day and sometimes through the night. Their comments reflect our standards of welfare and care for our elephants. And we thank them for it. These are the people who have been here and actually witnessed what we do.
The majority of the people who are throwing insults and threats have never been here, do not know us and are sitting behind computer screens a million miles away.
A fact to be born in mind is that the elephant at KEP are under/open to public scrutiny 24 hours per day, seven days a week. We have visitors all day; we have volunteers here 24 hours per day who have access to the elephant; we have people who sleep above the elephants in their “night rooms”. If there was any, even the slightest abuse to our elephants like seen in the photo, this would be seen by all and sundry as these wounds would be visible for months.
Why should people visit KEP?
I think the comments given by our friends, guests and volunteers reflect exactly why people should visit KEP.