Former Anchor Leslie Griffith Becomes an Elephant Activist

The topic that resulted in her leaving KTVU turns into her life calling



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Leslie Griffith

photo courtesy of When Giants Fall

Leslie Griffith has reinvented herself and emerged with a new film, a powerful documentary about the blood ivory trade decimating the world’s African elephant population. When Giants Fall is the culmination of an odyssey that began in 2004 when the reporter examined the treatment of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus elephants.

In the summer of 2006, after 20 years as a reporter and anchor of the 10 o’clock news on Oakland’s KTVU, Channel 2, Leslie Griffith, the pretty blonde with the sweptback hair and bangs, abruptly disappeared from the air. For a while, a fill-in said, “Leslie Griffith is off for the night.” But when her departure was officially announced in a Sept. 27, 2006, press release, she had not been on air in months. Many of her former fans still wonder why she suddenly departed the anchor desk that she shared with Dennis Richmond for eight years. The explanation is that Griffith’s inclination to report on the public health risks of circus elephants with Mycobacterium tuberculosis ended with her leaving her television station.

Her road to becoming an anchorwoman sounds like something out of a Hollywood script. Born in Houston, she went to college, married, had two daughters, and moved to Grand Junction, Colo., for a college job teaching that fell through. Money was tight, so she happened into a small radio station and applied for a receptionist’s job. Instead, she was hired as a reporter to cover Shell Oil and synthetic fuel, quickly learning reporting. When the oil boom went bust, she migrated to a local television morning show.

After Griffith and her husband parted ways, she landed an anchor job at KSBW, Channel 8, in Salinas. Six months later, in 1986, Fred Zehnder, then news director for Oakland’s Channel 2, hired her away as a weekday field reporter and eventually made her weekend anchor.

At Channel 2 she earned her spurs, winning numerous awards, including nine Emmys and two Edward R. Murrow awards for excellence in broadcast journalism on topics such as the exploitation of children and a Vietnam soldier’s remains being returned home 20 years later. She also scored an interview with Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, and later after winning numerous broadcast awards she turned down an anchor position on the CBS morning news offered by CBS News president Eric Ober.

By 2003, Griffith’s journalistic reputation was solid, although on air she occasionally badmouthed inconsequential or badly written stories and apparently could prove obstinate to management. In 2004, there were several changes in station management, including a succession of news directors. It was then that Griffith first reported on elephant circus abuse based on a federal lawsuit by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights groups against Feld Entertainment, the owner of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The plaintiffs charged that the circus’ Asian elephants suffered inhumane treatment; the case was dismissed, and Feld later successfully sued the Humane Society.

When Ringling Brothers circus was in Oakland to perform in 2004, Griffith went undercover with her cameraman whom she left outside and snuck into the tent where the elephants were kept to observe their conditions. “The elephants did not look good. I was spotted by a suspicious handler and immediately escorted out by two security guards,” she said. “These are carnie folk and they don’t take to outsiders snooping around, particularly journalists. It didn’t matter; I had already collected footage of abuse.” Griffith has already obtained footage from activists who had gone undercover.

Although the story ran under the title “Horrors Under the Big Top,” and later won a Telly award, Griffith said she was cautioned to go easy on the story and noted that the circus spent big money with KTVU on advertising. Station executives have denied that advertising played any influence in their decision on news stories. Griffith continued her series of stories about such abuse, which included the deaths of two baby elephants during training.

In 2006, Griffith obtained court documents indicating that many of the Asian elephants, mostly from Thailand, had contracted Mycobacterium tuberculosis, or MTB. Griffith checked in with Don Francis, the respected San Francisco epidemiologist and HIV expert, on whether humans might be vulnerable to MTB transmitted by elephants. Francis said that elephants, particularly in a confined area, could spread the disease to humans just by sneezing. But Griffith said Channel 2 News Director Ed Chapuis wouldn’t air the piece.

It was the end for her at Channel 2. Griffith’s view is that the station was pressured by Ringling Brothers to muzzle her, and that she was fired. A settlement package was subsequently negotiated, since Griffith had three years left on her contract. The station said her departure was by mutual agreement.

As a freelance journalist still very concerned about the potential public health risks posed by elephants under the big top, Griffith wrote her piece, “The Elephant in the Room,” for Truthout, an online periodical in 2007. Since that time, several Portland, Ore., zookeepers contracted TB from elephants in their charge. About the same time, Feld Entertainment announced that it was retiring its elephants to Florida.

Griffith’s interest in the abuse and health issues of elephants fueled an expanded passion, which 3 years ago resulted in her beginning work on a documentary, When Giants Fall, about the poaching of African elephants for ivory.

“Elephants are sentient, highly intelligent, social creatures,” said Griffith, who has become an activist. “They’re family- and community-oriented, and they are being killed off at an alarming rate.”

She formed a production company, wrote a script, financed the project, and directed a film crew she put together. They spent two years and five trips shooting footage in five African counties, including Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Tanzania.

“We were pretty much undercover,” Griffith said. “And in some states, when it came to our safety, we were just as concerned about government officials who are suspected of being in league with the poachers as the poachers themselves.”

The film runs 76 minutes and cost $800,000. It was the top choice for the Ashland Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation. It will soon be shown in Australia. And it earned big kudos—the top Environmental Award—at the Sedona Film Festival in February. Passion River Films of New Jersey, a film distributor, has expressed interest in distributing it for its high-production values. Bill Maher also has endorsed it.

Griffith, who now lives in southern Oregon, is optimistic that over time audiences around the globe will see When Giants Fall and hopes that somehow it will help make a difference.

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