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June 15, 2016

Jessica Bell Rizzolo: Preventing elephant abuse

June 15, 2016

Elephant riding is a popular tourist attraction in India and Thailand, but it comes at a cost for the animals. Understanding and preventing the abuse elephants suffer to satisfy tourists is the goal of MSU student Jessica Bell Rizzolo.

Bell Rizzolo, who is working toward her Ph.D. in sociology, specializes in animal studies, environmental science and policy, and conservation criminology. She is researching the effects and trauma elephants experience to fill the needs of tourists.

“In Thailand it is very common for the baby elephants to be separated from their mothers quite young and then to go through all these other traumas, such as dominance-based training, inadequate food or water, and the prohibition of natural behaviors,” said Bell Rizzolo, who completed her Bachelor of Science in education and social policy and Master of Arts in psychology at Northwestern University, as well as training in trans-species psychology with Gay Bradshaw, the foremost expert on PTSD in elephants.


“Basically I was looking to see if all of this was leading to trauma in the elephants, and it was,” she said. I found that the majority of these elephants exhibited symptoms of Complex PTSD, a diagnosis originally developed by Dr. Judith Herman to describe the symptoms of human survivors of prolonged trauma, such as prisoners of war and survivors of torture.”

Bell Rizzolo’s interest in researching elephants began on a family trip to India. She had always been interested in animal issues and chose to focus on psychological and neuroscience research. She had a feeling, however, that something was missing. Then, during her trip to India, she witnessed tourists riding elephants and saw one of the elephants get hit on the back of the head for not moving forward. After witnessing the elephant bleeding and distressed, she began researching the issue of elephant riding and began to realize what she experienced was part of a widespread problem.

“I began to be curious about 'why did these tourists go on this trip?'” she said. “I think it was that juxtaposition of seeing people who really love animals and love wildlife go on these trips where they ride elephants. There is this peculiar phenomenon where the very love or passion that tourists feel for these animals leads to their abuse. I felt that this was an important psychological and sociological issue that deserved additional research.”

She focused her research on the differences between the treatment of elephants at sanctuaries and tourist camps. She has visited Thailand multiple times, including a two-month trip earlier this year, and she visited multiple sanctuaries, conducted interviews and observed mahouts (people who work with elephants). She said that the interactions between the mahouts and elephants at the sanctuaries was noticeably different from those at dominance-based tourism camps, with the positive mahout-elephant relationship at sanctuaries often being a mechanism of trauma recovery for the elephants.

Her studies included onsite research that required her to travel across the world, and without MSU’s help it wouldn’t have been possible. She has received a number of fellowships and grants from MSU, including the Animal Studies Graduate Fellowship, the Kellogg Biological Station Research Fellowship, and the Artis Endowment Fund and Useem Endowment Fund from the Department of Sociology. she has also received funding from outside MSU, including the Animal Welfare Trust. She said her funding and potential future funding has had a dramatic effect on her research by providing her the ability to travel.


“What I would really like is to be able to do research that helps policymakers and stakeholders, – whether that’s government officials in Thailand, travel agencies or tourists – make informed decisions about wildlife tourism. I’d like to assist policymakers and stakeholders with understanding the effects of their choices on animals, on the mahouts and communities who work with elephants, and on larger environmental issues such as species conservation and deforestation,” said Bell Rizzolo. “My approach during my recent trip and going forward is to work collaboratively with the communities and non-governmental organizations that are hosting me, based on a model of participatory action research. I want to see what their informational needs are and design my research with those needs in mind.”

As she continues her research and moves forward with writing her dissertation, she hopes to make an impact on how elephants are treated by improving the communication surrounding the issue.

“Based on the work I’ve done in Thailand, I’m currently working on a policy document on elephant tourism in Thailand, to be published by the Kerulos Center later this year. My aim is to write a document that will be accessible to people who aren’t trained in my specific field. I think it is really important to contribute both to the academic literature and to the knowledge of the general public. My aim is to produce work that inspires people to become involved in pressing environmental and animal issues, so that someone without any knowledge of elephants can pick up this work and look at this issue and see why it is important.”

Written by Robert Bondy, MSU senior journalism student