An Apology to Elephants



Disturbing animal abuse docu isn't for sensitive viewers.
  • Review Date: April 22, 2013
  • Rated: PG
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Release Year: 2013
  • Running Time: 40 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

The documentary aims to open viewers' eyes to the habitually abusive conditions to which elephants are subjected in circuses and zoos. Experts build a case against circus and zoo programs as a whole, naming only one (The Oakland Zoo) that has changed its tactics in favor of humane conditions for the animals. They also encourage viewers not to support these causes until the animals' living conditions change. The information is one-sided, but the video and photographic evidence support the experts' claims of longtime abuse of captive elephants. The content also touches on conservation, poaching, and the ecology of the elephants' natural habitats.

Positive role models

Animal experts and activists are passionate and learned about the issues they support, and their devotion to the cause is inspiring. In some cases, people have dedicated their lives to the tedious work of rehabilitating abused elephants.


Graphic footage of animal abuse. Elephants are chained, pulled by ropes, beaten with sticks, prodded, and intimidated into compliance by trainers. Some deaths are shown, by shooting and, in one case, by electrocution. Other video clips show elephants turning on people, trampling and knocking them to the ground. Animal carcasses are sprawled on the ground, and poachers prepare to dismember them and harvest their tusks for sale.

Not applicable

One use of "damn."  


Two humane projects -- The Oakland Zoo and the Performing Animal Welfare Society -- get a lot of publicity from this movie.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking
Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that the graphic and upsetting images of abuse and death in An Apology to Elephants are not for the faint of heart. Viewers watch trainers coerce cooperation from the animals by pulling their limbs into place with ropes and by using tools that inflict pain, but the message really hits home when you see how those practices translate to the seemingly innocent cues given to the animals in the circus ring. There's footage of poachers shooting and butchering elephants, and another scene shows one being electrocuted. Animal -rights activists make a case for boycotting circuses and zoos in light of harmful practices, but the movie also dedicates time to celebrating two American projects that have changed their tactics and now advocate for more humane treatment of all captive elephants. This isn't a movie you want your young kids to see, but it is an eye-opening (if only one-sided) commentary on a longstanding animal-rights issue.

Parents say

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What's the story?

AN APOLOGY TO ELEPHANTS is a documentary that takes a hard look at the historically abusive treatment of elephants by humans through enslavement, hard labor, poaching, and painful training practices for our entertainment. Narrated by Lily Tomlin, the movie takes viewers from the serene natural habitats of the Asian and African elephants to the cement cells and chained restraints most captive animals endure in zoos and circuses around the world. Experts explore the discrepancies between traditional training programs marked by force, pain, and fear, and new efforts to relate more humanely to elephants in captivity, while simultaneously making a case for the protection of these animals now threatened by extinction.

Is it any good?


This affecting story is difficult to watch, what with painful scenes of humans beating, prodding, and otherwise coercing these gentle giants into submission. The video clips were chosen to appeal to your sense of decency, and you'll likely walk away feeling sick over abuse you may or may not have known existed. You'll learn about elephants torn from their mothers, kept in small crates, and subjected to painful practices that force them into unnatural behavior. Animal experts weigh in on the need to protect elephants in the wild, calling up their importance to their local ecologies and their vulnerability to poaching practices. Ultimately, if it makes you think twice about buying a ticket to the circus or visiting the elephant exhibit at your local zoo, then it's achieved its goal.  

But the story doesn't focus solely on the bad. It also spotlights two projects -- The Oakland Zoo and the Performing Animals Welfare Society -- that are going against the tide, catering to elephants' natural instincts and needs, and reaping the benefits of the animals' improved emotional health. These segments are no less moving than are the accounts of abuse, but they do offer some hope for the future of elephants both in the wild and in captivity. The bottom line? This important story is well worth watching, but the nature of the content is too much for all but the sturdiest teens and adults.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about this documentary's intent. What did the creators want you to know? Do they hope to change your behavior in any way? If so, did they accomplish that goal?

  • What is the meaning of "propaganda"? Does this movie meet the requirements for that? Do films like this one have any obligation to tell the other side of the story? Could anything be said to defend the acts you see in this film?

  • Watch other documentaries on issues that are important to your family, and discuss their effects on your impressions of those issues. Did they change your stance? Were their points valid? What might you have added to the information they included?

Movie details

DVD release date:October 22, 2013
Cast:Lily Tomlin
Director:Amy Schatz
Topics:Science and nature, Wild animals
Run time:40 minutes
MPAA rating:PG

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Teen, 14 years old Written byFlutter with Boots July 1, 2013

Why did they make this?

I really love animals, know lots about them, and have so many. It actually made me cry watching this to the point of turning it off, and i'm a teen. Don't let kids watch this, please. It just made me very mad with this movie because of how rude they were to the animals............
What other families should know
Too much violence
Teen, 14 years old Written bywicked_njo September 10, 2014


This movie was great but it really made me upset
What other families should know
Too much violence


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