By Heather Mims
Every year many look forward to attending the circus, in particular the elephant walk before the show makes it debut. But would they do so knowing what animals go through to perform?
Elephants are beaten, using bull hooks, whips and electric prods. They perform out of fear, their will broken down.
The Wildlife Advocacy Project states that many are taken from their mothers while still babies, with ropes tied around their legs to separate them while still nursing. Kept in cages, often up to 26 hours in transport, they can give up to three performances a day. Pacing, swaying or head-bobbing are behaviors associated with distress or boredom.
An unhappy or mistreated elephant also is a danger to society. There have been incidents of elephants escaping, attacking buildings or causing other forms of property damage, or even injuries or death to trainers and members of the public.
Humans also are at risk for a form of tuberculosis that can be passed on from elephants. That disease, along with herpes, is rare in the wild but more common when linked to captivity. Confinement may lead to arthritis and other joint problems for elephants.
The website Do Something maintains that while circus animals have the right to be protected and treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act, the degree of monitoring is limited, as every major circus that uses animals has been cited for violating minimal care standards set forth by the law. Fewer than 100 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors are assigned to oversee the 12,000 circus-related facilities in America.
A particularly sad example was an elephant named Kenny, a Ringling Bros performer. As a 3 -year old Asian elephant, he would normally have still been weaning from his mother in the wild.
According to an article in Mother Jones magazine, “The Cruelest Show on Earth,” his job within the show was to kick a beach ball with the letter “A” on it while he twirled in a tight circle, perched on a tub, and then wave goodbye with a handkerchief grasped in his trunk. But, his spirit flagging, he began to show no interest in hay or water.
A circus vet tech was eventually dispatched. Federal law states that sick animals must get prompt medical care and a veterinarian’s approval before continuing to perform. Kenny got neither.
Diarrhea during the morning show was followed by rectal bleeding in the afternoon with a struggle to stand. A veterinarian prescribed antibiotics and recommended Kenny skip the third show. Gunther Gebel-Williams, then vice president of animal care at Ringling Bros and a former animal trainer himself, ruled otherwise.
Shackled in his stall, Kenny continued to bleed after the third show and was given rehydration fluids. He was found dead two hours later; the cause of his death unclear. The USDA charged Ringling Bros with two violations under the Animal Welfare Act. After months of public outcry, a settlement was reached, absolving the circus of responsibility yet requiring the company to donate $20,000 to elephant causes.
Elephants are highly social creatures. They mourn, celebrate, and feel empathy and connection. When a baby elephant loses its mother, other elephants step in to nurture. They trumpet when they want to play, squeak and chirp to comfort, gather together in a group, rumble over long distances. They do not balance balls or form conga lines in the wild.
They deserve better than a life of endless train rides, fear and isolation while performing tricks that are not natural to them.