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The Truth About Elephants

People generally have a very high opinion of elephants: They're intelligent, entertaining, awe-inspiring and they make marvelous movies!

But lost somewhere in romance of the silver screen is a terrifying reality: Elephants are also deadly. As 48 Hours Correspondent Russ Mitchell reports, working with elephants has statistically been the most dangerous job in the country.

"If you'd watch an elephant move, it's poetic. I mean, they're incredibly graceful," says John Lehnhardt of Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida. "They are so big and unusual, and yet we see in them something like us. They're really smart. They think, they solve problems; there's no question about that….They have a life span sort of like ours. They can live into their 60s."

And also like humans, they nurture their children into teen-agers. But it's their power that is truly awesome. In the teakwood forests of India, they treat thousand-pound logs like twigs.

But it's not really the 10,000-pound animal that Lehnhardt is watching: It's the 100-pound man next to it. He holds the answers to the serious problem. In many of America's zoos and circuses, elephants attack humans.

John Lehnhardt
According to a study of Lehnhardt's, people are three times more likely to incur a fatality by working with elephants than being a front-line police officer. Almost one elephant a year kills its handler. And it's not just the handlers at risk. In Florida, a 20-year-old elephant rampaged while carrying children on her back. Too often, the rampage ends only when the elephant is killed.

In an effort to deal with the frightening figures, Lehnhardt travels to India, home to majority of the last 35,000 wild Asian elephants. To understand why they rampage in captivity, he tries to understand them in the wild.

"The female elephants have to be able to socialize in groups," he says. "They have to be able to breed, rear young and have that kind of experience. Without that, they're not elephants."

Most of the 600 to 700 elephants in American zoos and circuses don't have the opportunity to breed. And, too many female elephants are left to live solitary lives.

Lehnhardt receives assistance from men called mahouts, which means "elephant men." They have been training wild elephants for centuries, and it's what they know that Lehnhardt and his colleague Chris Wemmer want to learn.

A mahout waits in the teakwood forest.
But the occupation has fringe benefits. The women in the village generally consider the trainer of the toughest elephant the most desirable.

In this particular village, it's a man named Ginia. He works with the only bull elephant in the community.

"[It's] very dangerous to work with," Lehnhardt says. "Part of the training is to prevent the elephant from realizing their power over you."

And letting domestic elephants be as much like wild elephants is the biggest lesson Lehnhardt says he has learned from his India trip: "I think the elephant philosophy and the management here is excellent. The elephants literally have good lives."

The trainers make sure the elephants' skin is oiled every day. They also feed them high-octane supplements known as ragi balls, which promote good health.

Perhaps the biggest secret to these animals' well being is that they go back to their natural habitat at night, when they're turned loose in the forest. So like the wild elephants, they spend their nights grazing, away from the sight, smell and control of human beings.

"They get to take out their frustrations, anxieties, whatever - in the 16 to 18 hours that they have away from them - and they don't need to take it out with us," Lehnhardt says.

Letting the elephants be at peace in the wild - Lehnhardt believes that makes all the difference for a life in captivity.

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