When Mia Boccella Hartle and her husband, Tom Hartle, set out to make a documentary about the 2008 birth of two baby elephants at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, she discovered the story didn’t just begin and end with the calves entering the world.
Instead, she found the elephants, like any family, have a complex relationship with each other, and their trainers, that ranges from affection to sibling rivalry.
“The dynamics are very, very similar to what goes on in human families,” Hartle, a Highland Park resident, said.
The bond between the elephants, and how they adjust to their environment, is what led Hartle to name the documentary Elefamilia.
“We knew right away that they were all part of a family and trying to be a family,” she said.
The film, which Hartle said is appropriate for all ages, will be shown at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 16 at the Cranberry Cinemas in Cranberry. It will be followed by a question and answer session with the filmmakers and Willie Thieson, the zoo’s expert elephant trainer.
In the hour prior to the screening, there also will be family-friendly activities in the theater’s lobby, including elephant trivia, coloring and a scavenger hunt.
The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium docents also will bring small zoo animals to the theater to show attendees.
Already, Elefamilia has been broadcast is Canada, Poland, Romania and Hungary and will be airing soon in South Korea, Africa and Denmark, Hartle said. In December, the film premiered at the Waterworks Theater in Aspinwall to great success.
“It was amazing because we had a line that went out the door and down the block,” Hartle said. “It was all very highly unexpected. People just left it with such positive feelings.”
The Elephant Whisperer
At the center of Elefamilia is Thieson, the zoo’s resident “elephant whisperer.”
The film shows Thieson speaking gently to his charges, and later laughing as calf tickles him with her trunk.
Still, Thieson has no illusions about his safety among the giant pachyderms, which weigh thousands of pounds each.
“You always have to know that it is an extremely dangerous profession,” he tells the cameras, referencing an accident in 2002 where one of the zoo’s elephants killed a trainer.
Thieson also does not believe in chaining elephants when they give birth, which presents another risk to his safety. The elephants could turn on the baby or their handler during the birth, Hartle said.
“He really believes for the health of mother, and the health of the baby, that they not do that,” she said.
There also was tension surrounding the birth of Moja’s calf.
Moja is the elephant responsible for killing the handler, and Hartle said there was some concern regarding how the elephant would behave during the delivery. With Thieson’s support, Moja successfully gives birth to her calf, Zuri.
Hartle said Moja, who was pregnat almost 23 months, a record for an elephant in captivity, was surprisingly gentle with Zuri, using her legs and trunk in a delicate way to soothe the newborn and help Zuri to her feet.
“It went really, really well and she is a really good mom,” Hartle said of Moja.
To watch the trailer for Elefamilia, click here. Tickets to the screening are $5 per person and $3 each for children under 13.
Buy advance tickets to the show by visiting the Cranberry Cinemas website.
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