The Washington Post

A woman plays Bach on the violin to swaying elephants. Is this cute, or cruel?

Earlier this week, University of Wisconsin graduate student Eleanor Bartsch was warming up for a violin performance by playing Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins.” Her audience: 44-year-old Kelly, and 45-year-old Viola, elephants in the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisc.

In the video you can see the pair of elephants elegantly swaying to the music. Bartsch, a member of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, practiced the song for the elephants in between private shows last weekend, she told the Baraboo New Republic. “I decided to experiment and see what those guys would do,” she said.

The elephants’ handler, Chip Arthurs, told the local paper that he didn’t know the two liked classical music, as he usually plays rock for them. “I think they prefer Lynyrd Skynyrd,” he said.

Others are drawing different conclusions. Animal rights group PETA has contended on its site that the elephants show signs of “zoochosis,” which they describe as “a captivity-induced mental illness” characterized by repetitive behavior. They posted videos of other captive elephants swaying, with no music playing at all.

Bartsch responded to the questions raised about why the elephants swayed along to her playing. “I would like to think it’s because they were enjoying the music,” she told New York Daily News. “Maybe they were happy to have someone perform for them for a change.”

In 2008, researchers looked into the effect of classical music on captive animals and found it may actually reduce such abnormal behavior like swaying. In a study published in the journal Animal Welfare, researchers played classical music for four elephants in the Belfast Zoo. They found the animals spent “significantly less” time displaying abnormal behavior while listening to the music.

“Elephants are incredibly sensitive beasts,” David Field, zoological director of London and Whipsnade zoos told The Guardian in 2008. “Their appreciation of noise communication is far beyond our hearing range. They communicate in deep infrasonic vibrations … so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if [classical music] has this calming effect.”

Elahe Izadi is a general assignment national reporter for The Washington Post.
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