Movie review: 'Elefamilia' shows elephant births at zoo

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Willie Theison sounds like a proud papa or nurse as he towels off the newborn and addresses the mother.

"You did it again. Look at your little baby.

"Welcome to Pittsburgh," he tenderly tells the baby, who happens to be an elephant named Angeline. "Good girl," he compliments the mom.

The elephant was one of two calves born during 2008 at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, arrivals chronicled in a new documentary, "Elefamilia," being shown Saturday morning at the Waterworks Cinema.

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

Directed by Highland Park's Mia Boccella Hartle, "Elefamilia" provides a front-row seat to those births -- one of which came after the longest pregnancy ever for an African elephant in captivity -- and a look at what the zoo is doing to forge and foster elephant families.

Elephants, it turns out, are a lot like people. They bond and bully, succumb to jealousy and sometimes run off to chase butterflies. Some emerge as leaders, most want to avoid punitive hooks and confining chains, and a young bull is described as "everything a little boy can be."

But breeding elephants is about more than just trying to out-Disney Disney, even if nothing is cuter than a newborn calf wobbling to her feet.

Barbara Baker, the zoo's president and chief executive officer, talks about a pivotal 2003 national study that suggested if elephants weren't bred in the United States they would disappear from captivity in 40 years. Breeding also eliminates the need to remove more animals from the wild.

Although Mr. Theison, elephant manager at the zoo, makes it look easy and instinctive, he acknowledges a 2002 accident that killed a keeper.

"You always have to know that it is an extremely dangerous profession," Mr. Theison says. "There are a number of personalities in our herd and, from day to day -- just like with people -- some days they don't feel like working. Some days they don't feel like interacting with the other elephants," he adds, and the staff must recognize that and deal with it accordingly.

"Elefamilia," which interviews other key Pittsburgh zoo staffers who work with the elephants daily, shows what happened to the animal involved in that fatal accident.

It also demonstrates a connection between training horses and elephants, shows what a powerful force maternal instinct can be, what it means to let elephants be elephants and provides a rare backstage pass to where the wild things are.

"Elefamilia" will be shown at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Waterworks Cinemas, where Mr. Theison and producers Mia Boccella Hartle and Tom Hartle will field questions afterward.

Admission: $5 for adults and $2 for children 13 and younger. Special animal guests will be on hand starting at 10 a.m. Details:


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:


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