RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We noted elsewhere in the show that today is Cher's 75th birthday. She spent most of those years building a wildly successful career as a pop star and an actress. But in recent years, she's become an animal rights activist. And a new documentary traces her journey to save one specific elephant. It's called "Cher & The Loneliest Elephant," and it's playing on the Smithsonian Channel. Here's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: This is not an admission you expect from a pop star who has sold a hundred million records and has 3.9 million Twitter followers. But when Cher got involved with the struggle to move an elephant stuck in a crumbling zoo in Islamabad, she had to fight an uncomfortable feeling through all the challenges and setbacks in her four-year battle. She felt powerless.
CHER: I kept going to all my friends, I'm just an entertainer; I'm just an entertainer. 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.
DEGGANS: Cher may have a little more street cred after the debut of "Cher & The Loneliest Elephant," a documentary about the effort to save Kaavan, a four-ton malnourished elephant who'd been kept in chains at the Islamabad Zoo for decades. The film details how a young trainee veterinarian from America, Samar Khan, saw Kaavan during a trip to visit family in 2015. She eventually created a social media campaign, #FreeKaavan, which gained worldwide attention after noticing Kaavan swayed constantly in his pen, no other elephants around.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CHER & THE LONELIEST ELEPHANT")
SAMAR KHAN: I knew that elephants are supposed to be incredibly social and incredibly intelligent animals. And to see him with no source of enrichment at all, I knew that this behavior is really stereotypic behavior for animals who have faced severe either mental or physical neglect.
DEGGANS: Sympathizers began calling Kaavan the world's loneliest elephant. And in 2016, Cher tweeted that she would get involved. That action touched off years of wrangling with Pakistani officials and gathering support. The pop star co-founded a nonprofit group, Free the Wild, and even recorded a song called "Walls."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALLS")
CHER: (Singing) Everything's riding on, riding on us to save them.
DEGGANS: The film shows how a lawsuit prompted a Pakistani court to close the zoo. But the government had a few requests, including a big one. They wanted Cher to come to Islamabad. And she wasn't sure she was going.
CHER: I kept saying, am I really going to do this? Am I going to go to a place that I'm afraid of anyway with a pandemic? And I'm packing my clothes still thinking this.
DEGGANS: But she eventually made the trip, serenading the elephant and watching the arduous process of preparing an elephant for an 11-hour trip from Pakistan to a sanctuary in Cambodia. Cher says the experience taught her a bit about the power of celebrity activism, but she remains cautious, recalling a recent incident where she sparked a deluge of critical comments on social media after musing on Twitter if she could have stopped police from killing George Floyd had she been there.
CHER: It hurt me, and I then thought I was stupid. 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.
DEGGANS: Still, after saving Kaavan with a mixture of organizing, social media publicity and schmoozing, Cher says she's ready to work on saving other animals. Turns out, the right spotlight trained on the right subject can move mountains - and elephants.
I'm Eric Deggans.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALLS")
CHER: (Singing) Oh, look at this...
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