By Jim Miller
GENEVA — High school teacher Monica Kelley asked a roomful of students Wednesday to tell Sangita Iyer what they thought of the trailer for her film, “For the Love of Elephants.”
“It was crazy!” one called.
“It was sad,” said another.
“It was upsetting,” added a third.
Kelley — who led her students in an effort to raise money for the film, which documents the abuse of elephants used in Indian religious festivals — agreed.
“Nobody deserves to live a life like that, elephants or people,” she said.
About 100 students packed the Geneva High School Library to hear Iyer talk about the documentary and her other projects. Iyer, who lives in Toronto but recently returned from a trip to India, also spoke Wednesday at the Wood Library in Canandaigua and Finger Lakes Community College.
In Geneva, she began with a thank-you to Kelley and her students. Their efforts included raising almost $300 through raffles at the Festival of Nations and more than $700 through a run organized by the school’s 5K Club.
“I was really moved by what you and Monica managed to do,” she said, asking the students to give themselves a round of applause. “ ... I’m so proud of you guys.”
Iyer devoted most of her 45-minute talk to a discussion of worldwide environmental and ecological issues. She encouraged the students to see the connections among events across the globe.
Iyer offered Ebola as an example. She said the actions of people here in America contribute to climate change, which can in turn make it easier for viruses to spread. Those viruses can then harm people here as well as abroad.
“What we do to the earth we do to ourselves,” she said.
Iyer also decried the global ivory trade and used it as another example of how events abroad can resonate here. The demand for ivory overseas not only destroys elephant populations, she said, but money from ivory sales goes to terrorist groups.
One student asked Iyer how she became interested in helping elephants.
“For me, what happened is there is a cultural connection with elephants, because elephants are part of the Indian culture, and I was born and raised in India,” she said.
However, Iyer also recalled a specific incident that spurred her to make her film.
In 2012, she said, she returned to India to mark the anniversary of her father’s death. While there, she went with a friend to see elephants in the wild. Her friend fielded a call about an elephant that had fallen into a trench used as a barrier between the jungle and a village, and the two went to help out.
“This majestic, really awesome, brave animal was lying there helpless,” she said. “Thousands of people had gathered to rescue this elephant. ... That inspired me.”
Iyer also was asked to offer advice for anyone who might feel hopeless in the face of climate change and other crises.
She said people must recognize that the problems are huge and that a single person cannot fix them. However, a single person can contribute to the solution and help organize collective efforts, she added.
“You can create massive ripples instead of feeling dejected,” she said. “ ... You guys are powerful. Don’t ever underestimate who you are. You guys can do this.”
Kelley, who teaches environmental botany, learned about Iyer while researching worldwide events she thinks her students should know about. She’s been helping with her project ever since.