Don't mess with Cher and her elephant: 'I'm not giving up'
Like all great things on the internet, Cher's journey of rescuing an elephant began with, well, a tweet from Cher.
"It was the kids on Twitter, they did this! They wouldn't leave me alone. I kept thinking they'd just stop when I didn't respond, but, somehow they didn't," Cher tells EW of the impetus for activism at the heart of her new documentary.
Cher & the Loneliest Elephant (out April 22 on Paramount+) follows her from Los Angeles to Pakistan to free the titular beast, Kaavan, from three decades of abusive confinement at an Islamabad zoo. "It was the only way [the government] would let him go, if I went there personally [so] I had to come and pick him up personally in a raging pandemic!"
Below, Cher outlines for EW a process that began online, but blossomed into a multi-national endeavor, spanning four years, the foundation of the 74-year-old's Free the Wild foundation, and a massive relocation effort that only became possible at the hands of an icon.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I never thought I'd say "Cher" and "elephant documentary" in the same sentence, but, here we are!
CHER: Who woulda thunk it? I've also been trying to save an elephant in Los Angeles for so many years, and I'm not winning. He's not winning, and it saddens me. I never expected to save Kaavan! But, we're working on more elephants right now.
Like all great things on the internet, this story can be traced back to a Cher tweet. You first got involved in the rescue on social media, Why did this story hit you so hard?
It was the kids on Twitter, they did this! They wouldn't leave me alone. I kept thinking they'd just stop when I didn't respond, but, somehow they didn't. I met a man named Mark Cowne in Qatar…. We got mixed up in cars going back to a hotel. He told me that he was from Africa, and when he was young, he helped move elephants. When this whole thing started happening, he was the only person I knew. I was like, "Hi, remember me? Could you possibly help me here?" He left a couple of days later…. telling them to unshackle Kaavan. He'd been shackled his whole life, since he was 4. He still has scars. His scars are just now getting better on the back of his ankles…. Mark took pictures, he was feeding Kaavan, he kept going back and we started on our odyssey that took four years and two [Pakistani] administrations!
How did this plan move from the internet to you actually needing to go to Islamabad yourself?
We were political, we were moving in and out of these administrations. It wasn't until [Prime Minister] Imran really got into office that we thought we had a shot…. once they gave us Kaavan, they wanted us to help put the other animals in the sanctuaries, too, so we got in touch with Four Paws. We could oversee it, but we had to bring in other people because we had no expertise, and they did.
Yes, but it was a huge production: You had camera crews, you went over there personally, why was that such an integral part?
It was the only way [the government] would let him go, if I went there personally. They had to have him out [by the end of the month] or it was null and void. They gave us a certain amount of time. That's when Dr. Amir Khalil taught him to go in and out of the cage because he was chained to that tight space for his whole life…. I had to come and pick him up personally in a raging pandemic.
How did you immediately react to that, hearing powerful people saying that they would only let him go if you went personally?
Well, I thought I'd better go!
Once you finally got there, there's a gorgeous scene where you sing Frank Sinatra's "My Way" to Kaavan…
It was so awful! I was singing so bad. I was so embarrassed! I actually wanted to redo it…. For a minute, I dipped back into Cher, because, pretty much, the whole time I was just "cher," with a small "c," and then we were singing "My Way," and it was like, Jesus, Dr. Amir, I don't want to sing "My Way," I never liked the song anyway!
It was so nice seeing you do that! I got emotional! What did you feel in that moment as you performed for him? Could you sense a change in his mood?
Elephants love music! They adore it! Go online, there's a video of a concert pianist who took his piano into the wild and [the elephants] are all standing around crying! People can look at their pets that they love and read their demeanor, but elephants are much nicer than people, which isn't saying much.
A lot of people enjoy animals more than the company of other people. Where do you stand on that?
Well, no, I love people, too. I do a lot of different things. I have a charity, Cher Cares, but all the animals we're working with come under Free the Wild. It started because of Billy [the elephant]. Lily [Tomlin] and I and so many people have been trying to take him away from the Los Angeles Zoo. I'm not giving up. I'm hoping that this documentary will help me, because elephants can't be in zoos. They don't do well. They die. Because their feet can't stand it. They move miles a day, and they're used to being together, like a family. It's like if you came in and split a family and said, "Put grandma in a cage!"
In the film, we see that elephants communicate through non-verbal movements and vibrations. Did you try to communicate with Kaavan beyond singing?
They can make a sound through the front of their head! After he'd been traveling for a long time [to his new sanctuary], one of the most exciting parts for me was when I walked inside his new compound, and I could see his [silhouette at night] walking around, and he was bobbing and weaving. It's a thing that elephants do when they have too much tension and anxiety. They can't go anywhere, so that helps relieve the stress. He did that all the time. But, now, he was just walks around, not doing it at all [and now] there are chicks here. He's got a new house and chicks! You can see them holding trunks at the end of the film. There's a young girl and an older girl.
What kind of energy did you feel from him in your moments with him?
They kept trying to pull me back, but he's lovely. He's a very kind soul. I'd be the meanest bitch that ever drew breath had I been put through everything he was put through…. I felt a complete attachment to him. As long as I fed him watermelon, he's very open and curious! He loves eating!
I've never seen anyone do a FaceTime call with an elephant. Do you still keep up with Kaavan on FaceTime, like we see at the end?
I don't see him all that much! But, I do like knowing…. I keep tabs with [the people with him] to see what's going on. There are three different tiers: He's in the first one, that big enclosure, so he's in that to get acclimated to where he is. It's a much better place for him even though it's very hot right now. The second tier, where the girls are, they come together for food and treats. They're building a little lake now, because elephants love swimming, so they'll be there together and have gotten used to one another enough by being close to each other for treat time. That, for all intents and purposes, is a jungle…. He'll feel free! He loves trees because he's never been able to be around them.
It's clear this impacted you emotionally, as an artist, this all inspired your song "Walls," which you released for Free the Wild in 2017. Has this process inspired any other new music that you've yet to release?
I haven't worked on my music in a little while. I'm working on an album, but it's a bitch because I don't know if anyone has ever done this kind of an album. You have to record a bunch of songs to get one, because you listen to the song and you think, "I love the song, that'll be great," but you get one out of four or one out of three.
What do you mean when you say people haven't seen an album like this before?
What, like I'm going to tell you? [Laughs].
It's my job to ask!
Bring it! Next question! We're not friends, I'm not telling you this!
That's my dream to be friends with Cher. You just crushed it!
[Laughs] I don't mean it like that. I mean, I'm going to tell you and you're going to go, "I'm not going to tell anybody!"
Well, the story played out in your life for four years, so do you plan to incorporate this life experience into the book about your life that you announced back in 2018?
I can walk and chew gum! I'm working on a bunch of different projects, and I didn't plan to, they just all came at the same time!