By Liam Miller
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Videographer / director: Gerrit Messersmith
Producer: Liam Miller, Ruby Coote
Editor: Ed Rius
Acrobat and animal handler Lauryn Murray, 33, from Florida, grew up in a circus and spends almost every day caring for Lady Essex, a huge Asian elephant.
Lauryn says the two are 'as close as a human and an elephant can be’.
Amazingly, Lady Essex plays fetch with Lauryn’s dogs and even likes to play with her three-year-old son, who helps give her a bath.
As a circus entertainer, Lauryn controversially argues that many captive animals are ‘happy’ and thinks animal rights activists should be open to discussions about their wellbeing.
And despite receiving death threats because she performs alongside Lady Essex, Lauryn is trying to challenge views about animal welfare.
She runs a facebook page about Lady Essex’s life and says most people attack her on social media. She says some critics have even threatened her toddler, Jax.
Lauryn told Barcroft TV: “When a family can own an elephant, they can put that elephant’s needs first.
“One of people’s biggest misconceptions about animal welfare is that many people think that certain animals can only be happy with a certain lifestyle.
“They think an animal, like an elephant, can only be happy in the wild and they can’t understand that animals can be happy in all different kinds of settings.
“In all industries, in all walks of life, people abuse power, but on the whole, the majority of circuses take very good care of their animals.
“We have guidelines, we have regulations, we have inspections. We have to take care of our animals.”
Lauryn has spent nearly her entire life living ‘close’ to the Asian elephant Lady Essex.
She says when she’s not on stage at the circus or working in the television and film industry, she regularly lets her elephant roam freely at the family’s several-acre ranch in the USA.
The family keep their location secret over fears that animal rights groups will try to sabotage their home or interfere with their animals.
At the family ranch, Lady Essex sometimes plays fetch with one of Lauryn’s dogs, who runs and brings back sticks to her.
The elephant even helps out around the home, using her incredible strength to clear fallen trees and other heavy lifting. Lauryn says its work like this, and her duties at the circus, that keep her healthy and happy.
“I love for the animals to have a job so they feel like they have a purpose, a meaning,” she says. “Just as your dog sits down, they feel like they accomplished something and that makes them feel needed.”
Lauryn advocates hands-on care for captive animals, meaning handlers physically interact with the animals. In hands-off care, or protective contact, which is advocated by most sanctuaries, the animals are kept in enclosures and have no physical except with humans except for specific circumstances like medical care.
“They can't touch or hug their elephants,” says Lauryn. “If they are the only animal in their enclosure, they are completely alone. Imagine you had a pet that lived behind bars and you could never touch, hold, hug or love that pet.
“In hands on human care she can live to be 60-70. We are not really seeing that age in the wild at all and in hands-off care.
“If you look at statistics on the elephants here in US sanctuaries, they usually die before their 40s or 50s.
“One of the things that helps anything live a long life is having a well-rounded life with mental and physical stimulation
“When you are left alone, your body is left to rot and so is your brain. You don’t have much to live for and so your system kind of gives up on you.”
Lauryn also says with big animals like her elephant, comes big responsibility.
“It’s a full time job. I get up, I get my coffee, I take it straight to her, we go for a big long walk. Depending on the weather, she’ll have a bath, she’ll drink water, I’ll feed her.
“That continues through the day or we will do certain things like move logs or I will teach her new tricks, like throwing a ball or kicking a ball or she will play fetch with the dog. It’s about keeping her interactive as stimulated as much as I can.”
Lauryn also says the daily contact has built her trust and understanding with Lady Essex to the point she lets toddler Jax interact with the huge mammal, helping shower her or while Lauryn practices her acrobatic circus act.
“I wouldn’t say there is any danger with my son being around her as long as it’s always supervised,” she says.
In the circus act, Lady Essex lifts Lauryn up into the air on her trunk, or balance her on her back.
Lauryn controversially challenges views on uses of the bull hook, also known as an ‘ankus’ or ‘guide’, which is a sharp stick with a metal point used by some professional elephant handlers.
She says: “Some claim it's used to control an elephant by poking the elephant's eyes, mouth, and anus. That image to me is horrible.
“The ankus is never used in that manner, and despite its pointy appearance, it is not meant to ever puncture an elephant's skin. What people fail to understand is an elephant's skin is so thick and rough that the point of the hook applies pressure in a way that can register in the elephant's head.
“The hook is never sharp to the touch. The same type of tool is used to help guide pigs from pen to pen.”
Lauryn’s dad, Frank Murray, adopted Lady Essex from a failing petting zoo in 1978.
As a result, Lady Essex became part of Lauryn’s family before she was born. Lauryn eventually became part of the circus, and now spends every day with her colossal co-performer.
She said: “I have been attacked by many animal rights activists. Somebody wished death upon my son. I have had lots of nasty messages sent to me. They wish death upon myself, my family.
“People get very extreme and I can't quite understand that level of extremity.
“I can understand when people are concerned for animal wellbeing but I would love to have a real discussion with them. I would rather them be open to discussing it, but people are usually are so extreme that they don’t even want to have a discussion. They don’t want to look at facts or reason, or my point of view as someone who works with an elephant every day.
“My message is that I want to make sure that we stay integrated with animals and we keep the animal human bond alive.
“I believe the best way to preserve exotic animals is by protecting them in captivity as well as the wild.
“I’m passionate about advancing the training of animals so that circus acts public performances are more focused on raising awareness.”
Lady Essex’s facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/thewalkingelephant