A Large Problem for Circuses

By May, there will be no more elephants in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus.

The circus management had originally said it would cease using elephants by 2018, but revised its estimate by two years. Management said the cost to retire the elephants to the Ringling Brothers Center for Animal Conservation in Florida is less than it had first anticipated. The 13 Asian elephants on tour will join 30 others at the 200 acre facility, which has a $2.5 million annual budget.

“Our family’s commitment to save the majestic Asian elephants will continue through our breeding program, research and conservation efforts at the Center,” said Alana Feld, executive vice-president of Feld Entertainment.

P.T. Barnum first used an elephant in his circus in 1882, having purchased Jumbo from a London zoo. Since then, most circuses have toured with performing elephants, most of them Asian females because of the difficulty to train male elephants after they reach maturity. (Almost no circuses use the larger African elephants.)

Why Ringling Bros. is removing its elephants from the touring company is because of increasing public pressure and charges of animal cruelty, much of it leveled by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other animal rights groups.

“We were very pleased that the elephants with Ringling Bros. will no longer suffer a miserable life on the road where they spend a great deal of time in boxcars and perform grueling circus tricks under the threat of punishment,” says Nicole Paquette, HSUS vice-president for wildlife protection. The circus, says Paquette, “had been one of the biggest defenders of this kind of archaic animal abuse, and the imminent end of its traveling elephant acts signaled that even one of the most tough-minded and hardened animal-use companies now recognized that the world is changing and it had to adapt.”

Thirty-one countries either restrict or ban animal performances in traveling circuses, citing cruelty in training the animals, according to Animal Defenders International.  For elephants in circuses in the United States, it means confinement in cages, chains on one of their legs to restrict their movement when not performing, and the use of bullhooks, which resemble fireplace pokers, to prod the elephants to follow directions.

Executives of circuses and entertainment companies that provide the animals to the entertainment industry, fairs, and carnivals, claim the use of bullhooks is humane. The HSUS disagrees.

“There is no way to humanely use a bullhook,” says Paquette. “The hook is used to apply varying degrees of pressure to sensitive spots on an elephant’s body, causing the elephant to move away from the source of pain, often causing puncture wounds and lacerations,” she says, pointing out, “When the hooked end is held, the handle is used as a club, inflicting substantial pain when the elephant is struck in areas where little tissue separates skin and bone. Even when not in use, the bullhook is a constant reminder of the painful punishment that can be delivered at any time.”

Even the presence of elephants at zoos, where handlers seldom use bullhooks, has been controversial because of limited room for the animals. The Detroit zoo was the first to eliminate the elephants; other zoos have followed, some because of space restrictions, some because of the cost to feed and maintain the largest land mammals.

In the wild, elephants, an endangered species, face even more danger. Several companies, many of them based in the United States, sponsor hunting packages.  For $35,000–$60,000, guides lead trophy-hunting Americans and others to herds. The companies claim they are saving the elephants because there are too many for the grasslands, and that the people can then cut up and eat all parts of the animal. Other hunters poach in restricted areas, solely to get the 10-15 pound ivory tusks, which can bring $1,000–$2,000 a pound in the black market. Botswana and Kenya have banned big game hunting, but other countries have allowed limited hunting because of the income from fees and related costs of two- and three week hunts that help the local economy. There were about 10 million elephants on two continents in 1900, according to the World Wildlife Fund; today, there are about 400,000. About 40,000 are Asian elephants, about 160,000 fewer than in 2000.

The decision by Ringling Brothers to retire its elephant acts isn’t just a victory for the Humane Society and animal activists, it’s a victory for the humane treatment of all animals. For those who want to see elephants, there are several sanctuaries where elephants are protected in near-wildlife environments.

Ringling Bros. and all circuses need to now retire the rest of their animal acts.

Every other circus—big or little—every fair and carnival—big or little—needs to eliminate wild animals performing tricks or serving as rides for those who pay a few dollars to go around in circles. Circus animals are not needed as an attraction. Cirque du Soleil, for example, presents an exciting show to millions every year, and doesn’t use animals.

Let other circuses and fairs follow that example, and let us hope that more countries ban trophy hunters from the slaughter of big game animals.

Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.