New York Times says it “would not have assigned” elephant article to writer had they known of conflict

group-of-asian-elephantsAlthough we nearly always stick to covering the scientific literature, we sometimes write about cases in other media that shed light on how different outlets correct the record. This is one of those times.

The New York Times issued an editor’s note and correction last week to a June 26 article about Happy the elephant, who some argue is suffering because she lives isolated from the other elephants at the Bronx Zoo.

After publication, however, the paper made a major discovery about the writer of the piece, Tracy Tullis: She had signed an online petition to move Happy to an elephant sanctuary. As they write in the editor’s note:

Such involvement in a cause related to news coverage is at odds with The Times’s journalistic standards; if editors had known that the writer had signed the petition, they would not have assigned the article to her.

One day after posting the editor’s note, the article added a correction that fixed facts in the descriptions of other zoos’ moves of their elephants to sanctuaries.

Reading “The Bronx Zoo’s Loneliest Elephant,” it’s hard not to feel for Happy’s plight:

For close to a decade Happy has lived alone, separated from the zoo’s two other elephants. Her solitary existence is quite unlike the life of a wild elephant. In nature, elephants live in closely bonded matriarchal families, which cooperate to raise their young. Females never leave the herd, forming lifelong attachments with siblings, cousins and aunts as well as with their mothers.

Happy’s predicament has caught the attention of wildlife rescue organizations and animal advocacy groups, including In Defense of Animals, which has named the Bronx Zoo one of the “10 worst zoos for elephants” for three years in a row, largely based on Happy’s isolation. There is a petition making the rounds on the Internet calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to order a study on her health and well-being, and another (which has collected nearly 87,000 signatures) asking the zoo to release Happy from “solitary confinement.”

Soon after publication, however, editors realized that author Tracy Tullis had herself signed a petition on Happy’s behalf:

Editors’ Note: June 29, 2015
An article last Sunday described the debate over the treatment of Happy, an elephant at the Bronx Zoo who lives separately from the zoo’s two other elephants, which animal-rights groups claim is cruel. After the article was published, editors learned that the writer had signed a petition on the website that called upon the zoo to release Happy to an elephant sanctuary. Such involvement in a cause related to news coverage is at odds with The Times’s journalistic standards; if editors had known that the writer had signed the petition, they would not have assigned the article to her.

We’ve found a petition to send Happy to a sanctuary that has so far collected 4,500 signatures.

The next day, the paper corrected the article:

Correction: June 30, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the reason the Toronto Zoo lost its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It was because the Toronto City Council, rather than zoo professionals, made the decision to transfer its elephants to a sanctuary; it was not because the elephants were moved. The article also erroneously included Cleveland in a list of cities whose zoos had sent elephants to sanctuaries.

Here’s some of the text the correction refers to:

The [Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the industry’s trade group] likewise prefers elephants to stay in its network, rather than go to sanctuaries, which by definition are not eligible for membership in the group. “When they go to an A.Z.A.-accredited zoo, we know exactly what kind of care they’re going to get,” Robert Vernon, a spokesman for the association, said. “At sanctuaries, there’s a lot that we don’t know and frankly can’t control.” The association in the past has used its power to compel compliance: Three years ago, as the Toronto Zoo prepared to send its two elephants to PAWS (a move that was affirmed only after a rancorous court battle), the association revoked the zoo’s accreditation.

The article quotes different people who advocate for various fates for Happy, including those who believe she should be sent to a sanctuary:

So where does this leave Happy? Her former keeper says she still hopes that the zoo will relent and send her to a sanctuary. Introducing a new elephant to a group, even gradually, can be tricky. But Ed Stewart, co-founder and president of the PAWS sanctuary in California, said he had never had a new elephant that couldn’t be integrated into the group. “Just give her the option,” he said.

[Margaret Whittaker, director of elephant care at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee] says that if Happy came to Tennessee, she could spend her last years living a little closer to how an elephant is meant to live. “Maybe Happy could find a friend in somebody here,” she said.

We sent a message to Tullis via Facebook and will update if we hear back.

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12 thoughts on “New York Times says it “would not have assigned” elephant article to writer had they known of conflict”

  1. Thank you for posting this. I didn’t know about Happy’s plight until reading this and have signed the petition!

  2. Please take some time to do some reading before you sign the petition. I work in animal care and story/petition are extremely distorted. Happy’s keepers have been working with her for years – they do backbreaking work on weekends and holidays for near minimum wage. There is no way they would tolerate anything but the best situation for Happy. It’s easy (and normal) to look at her and use our own values to judge, but the people at the Bronx Zoo are international experts in this. It’s truly one of the best facilities in the country. Any zoo or aquarium with accreditation from AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) is being held to incredibly high standards. The world “sanctuary” conjures up beautiful images, and some of them may be great, but if they are not accredited then there is no way to monitor their standards. San Antonio Zoo has a similar situation with an elephant, named Lucky, and they produced an excellent video which you can see here –

  3. Reading this I am thinking, “How could a zoo keep an elephant, a herd animal with a brain many times larger than a human’s, in solitary confinement, especially when they have two other elephants?”
    On the other hand, she should have waited to sign the petition until after the article was published. Doesn’t look good, and you know those humans. They’re sticklers for red tape.

  4. So does the times disqualify those who vote in elections from covering them? What about those who have registered for a political party? It’s not like the writer started the petition. In fact, if in the course of doing research the writer A) decided that the treatment was not ethical and B) came across the petition could she ethically NOT sign it? To write about a murderer, can I not have ever expressed an opinion that murder is wrong in a public fashion?

    Bias is inherent to humanity and literally every journalist (and scientist) ever is biased in their reporting… this is incredibly stupid.

  5. I don’t get it. How is it a conflict of interest if she has nothing to gain personally from the article? If somebody expresses an interest in some cause in a private conversation, would the editors be wrong in assigning an article on that subject to the person?

  6. A very sad article and I hope it results in some positive action. I subsequently went to the Wildlife Conservation Society website as they are involved in a save the African elephants campaign. I question the stand of the WC on this issue and have an email into WCS.

    A WCS executive, Jim Breheny is “Executive Vice President WCS & General Director, Zoos and Aquarium; Jonathan Little Cohen Director, Bronx Zoo
    Mr. Breheny manages the day-to-day operation of one of the world’s largest urban zoos. He is an accomplished zoologist with a deep understanding of animals and extensive experience in their care. Jim has participated in the planning and building of many of the Bronx Zoo’s breakthrough exhibits, including Madagascar! at the historic Lion House.”

    I sincerely hope the WCS and Jim Breheny will take a public stand against the treatment of elephants at the Bronx Zoo!

    1. Please see my comment above. I am an academic with a background in animal care, much of my research occurs in zoos and aquariums. WCS and the Bronx Zoo are some of the best out there. Just because Happy isn’t in what the average layperson perceives to be optimal conditions, doesn’t mean she isn’t. Zookeepers are some of the most dedicated people out there. They get to work at 7am, work weekends and holidays, pull all night shifts in bad weather, and get paid close to minimum wage. There is no way they would allow her to be anything other than happy and healthy.

  7. I think it matters if the writer’s bias influences objective reporting. If the writer is producing an opinion piece, then opinion naturally colors the view. If the story is supposed to be a balanced report of a situation, but the writer’s personal opinions affect word choice, phrasing, slant, and the way a situation is described, then that is another thing all together. I read the article first without knowing about the Editor’s Note which did not appear until the end. As I read I thought that it seemed to be biased toward the viewpoint of people and organizations who oppose keeping elephants in zoos, whether Happy to any other of her species.

    1. But all writing is inherently biased and all people have bias. You can try to write a “balanced” article. but that always involves making value judgments. For example, let’s say I want to write an article on the role of immigrants in America. Do I do a representative survey of X Americans, get their opinion and divide the attention between them? Do I divide the article evenly between “they are amazing” and “they are murdering rapists?” Do I feature the most polarizing politicians? Do I cite only academic work? What if the academic work is written primarily by authors who are publicly pro-open immigration?

      The idea that there are always two equally valid sides to every argument is hogwash. The idea that every side presented by the media as legitimate is also hogwash. In fact, often times the effect of “balanced” “two-sides” media coverage is to create the view that an extreme minority opinion is both valid and held by a large group. Again, because every single person who researches any topic ends up forming an opinion… it’s impossible to not have bias. And as the writer above pointed out, bias should only equal conflict when there is direct personal gain… and even then… how can anyone possibly write for the times on an issue like taxation or social programs? Are we going to get into that asinine argument that, for example, a gay person can’t objectively cover a supreme court ruling on gay marriage?

    2. … and taking this to the logical extreme… can I write a non-opinion piece on a recognized (and admitted) genocide if I have been known to sign a petition asking for war against the perpetrator? And do I have to recognize his opinion that the people that he is killing are inferior as a legitimate one?

  8. Perhaps Allison, who seems to have more knowledge of the facts surrounding Happy’s case, could explain to us why she has to be isolated from the zoo’s other two elephants. I suspect that being in solitary confinement, even in a “nice” enclosure, is even worse for elephants than it is for humans; and we “know” that solitary causes mental deterioration and premature dementia, among other things.
    Why did the City Council decide to send Happy to the sanctuary? Why did the zoo staff not want to send her? Etc. After all, if she can’t be with the other two elephants at the zoo, maybe she can be integrated into another social group somewhere else.
    I know zoo “keepers” (for lack of a better word) are ethical, dedicated professionals who are poorly paid and mostly do it for love of animals. So why is there so much conflict here?

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