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Cher, An Elephant, And The Power Of Celebrity

Cher with elephant Kaavan.
Cher with elephant Kaavan.

Cher felt powerless.

This is not an admission you expect from a woman who has been a superstar since the mid-1960s, with 100 million records sold and 3.9 million Twitter followers.

But when the pop star got involved in helping save an elephant stuck in a zoo in Islamabad under terrible conditions, Cher also had to fight an uncomfortable feeling.

"I kept saying to all my friends, 'I'm just an entertainer, I'm just an entertainer,'" Cher says now, as the streaming service Paramount+ debuts the documentary Cher & the Loneliest Elephant (the documentary airs on the Smithsonian Channel on May 19). It's a film about the years-long effort to save Kaavan, a 4-ton, malnourished elephant who had been kept in chains for decades in a run-down area of the Islamabad Zoo in Pakistan before he was moved to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia last year.

"How am I going to go to Islamabad, where if anyone knows who I am, they know I've been naked my whole life and that's not going to get me any street cred," she adds, laughing. "It took us four years and two [Pakistani presidential] administrations [to get him out]."

The film details how Kaavan — a bull elephant who had been at the zoo since 1985 — was the facility's star attraction, in part for his tendency to rock back and forth while standing in his pen. But when a young trainee veterinarian from America saw the elephant in 2015, she felt Kaavan — who had seen his only companion elephant die a few years earlier — was actually displaying signs of extreme stress.

She launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #FreeKaavan which eventually caught the attention of Cher, who says her fans inundated her with messages about the elephant. The music star posted a tweet in 2016 saying she was organizing friends to help. She called a friend, Mark Cowne, who had helped move elephants in Africa; Cowne visited Kaavan and got the zoo to change some of his conditions.

But years passed without significant progress. Cher eventually co-founded a non-profit group, Free the Wild, recorded a song called Walls for the organization and spent years trying to persuade the zoo and the government to allow Kaavan to relocate. The pop star says she was also feeling discouraged because her efforts to advocate for a different elephant named Billy to be moved from the Los Angeles Zoo many years earlier didn't work out.

"I was impotent.... I could not throw one bit of weight around," she says about the Los Angeles effort, where she appeared with other celebrities like Lily Tomlin and Robert Culp at a Los Angeles City Council meeting in 2009. "It didn't work."

But the effort in Islamabad turned out differently. The documentary shows how a young Pakistani lawyer sued the zoo and convinced a court Kaavan had to be moved. Cher says they were told all the animals at the zoo had to be relocated and officials wanted her to appear at the site to pick up Kaavan.

Why did they ask Cher to go to Islamabad? "Because they didn't think I would come," she says. "I kept saying [to myself] 'How am I going to do something so far away when I couldn't do anything in my backyard? Am I going to go to a place that I'm afraid of anyway in a pandemic?' Even as I'm packing my clothes... I didn't know how I was going to get myself to go."

But she did go, in a November visit featured in the documentary, meeting the country's Prime Minister Imran Khan and serenading Kaavan by singing a snippet of the song My Way. Another animal rescue organization, Four Paws International, supervised preparing Kaavan for the trip, which involved maneuvering him into a custom-built transport crate for a 7-hour flight on a cargo plane.

Much of the documentary focuses on the difficult process of organizing Kaavan's transport, detailing the bond veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil — a Four Paws expert on rescuing animals from difficult areas — developed with the elephant. One poignant moment shows Khalil admitting he broke one of his own rules by getting emotionally involved with his gigantic charge.

And what about those who may balk at all the time and attention spent on saving one elephant? "I won't just save one elephant," Cher says, firmly. "I will save more elephants. And now, I will know a little bit more about how to cut down the time (it takes)."

Cher says the whole experience taught her new lessons about the power of celebrity advocacy. But she's also learned to be cautious, recalling how she touched off an explosion of critical comments on social media after posting about a conversation with her mother where she wondered if she could have stopped police from killing George Floyd if she had been there.

"Sometimes, if I mention my celebrity in the most honest and loving way, people don't take it in the spirit of which it was meant, so I have to be careful how I throw that weight around," she says of the backlash. "It just hurt me. And then I thought I was stupid and then I thought... I should keep my mouth out of this."

The pop star says, despite how her life turned out, she has often felt like an outsider and believes her fans — especially from LGBTQ communities — often sense a kindred spirit.

"I was poor. I'm dyslexic. I wasn't very cute... and my future looked like it was going in a circle because I couldn't read well and I didn't understand numbers at all," Cher says. "And my mom was so great. She said 'You might not be the prettiest or the smartest or the funniest or any of that, but when you put what you are together, you're special.'"

Cher hopes to continue her advocacy for animals, aware that she has a lot to learn, while noting her success with Kaavan may have given her a little "street cred" on the subject.

"I thought, if people could just think, 'Would I take my dog or cat, put him in a shed, lock his hind legs up and leave him there forever?'" she says. "I want people to associate the animals they love and know with these animals... I don't have any answers, except I know... you can't quit. We can never quit."

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