By Delcianna Winders
Every day it seems we learn more about the astounding sophistication of elephant communication. The most recent revelations, coming from experts who have studied elephants in the wild for decades, further establish the scope and scale of these animals’ intelligence, social relationships and emotional complexity. Rhode Island legislators — who are considering a law to protect elephants — should take note.
Biologist and conservationist Joyce Poole and her husband, Petter Granli, direct ElephantVoices, an organization dedicated to studying elephants in their native homelands. After nearly four decades of meticulous observation, the team has developed an online database decoding hundreds of distinct elephant signals and gestures. Rumbling, purring, trumpeting, screaming, humming, ear flapping, freezing in place — all these vocalizations and postures have specific and important meanings.
When baby elephants cry as they are forcibly removed from their frantic mothers to be beaten and broken for the circus, their anguish is real. When mother elephants wail as their babies are taken away, they are heartsick. When elephants trumpet when they see their tormenters approaching with bullhooks — devices with sharp hooks on the end that resemble fireplace pokers and that are used to hurt and punish elephants used in circuses — they are truly terrified.
Just like us, all elephants have distinct personality traits and are unique individuals. Some elephants are born comedians. Poole and her team saw time and again elephants deliberately pulling pranks, or as she says, “They know that they are funny.” Some elephants are drama queens while others are simply regal. One other thing elephants share with humans: They avoid pain and don’t like being hurt. There can be no doubt that living in chains and in constant fear of the bullhook causes captive elephants immeasurable suffering.
Every detail we learn is one more nail in the coffin of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus and other acts that still exploit these keenly intelligent and self-aware animals. Right now, Rhode Island’s House Judiciary Committee is considering a ban on the use of cruel bullhooks as well as chaining elephants.
Some municipalities, including Fulton County, Ga.; Pompano Beach, Fla.; Southampton, N.Y.; and others, already have bans in place. Zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have been directed to transition to a management system in which the use of bullhooks will be exceedingly limited next year.
More than a dozen U.S. zoos have gone a step further. Recognizing that the complex needs of the world’s largest land mammal cannot be met in a cramped pen, zoos from coast to coast have closed their elephant displays and sent the elephants to reputable sanctuaries. Without exception, relocated elephants have thrived in a more natural environment.
Take Maggie, for example. Maggie was ripped from her Zimbabwe home when she was a baby and spent 24 years in the Alaska Zoo. Spending most of her time in a barn, Maggie developed health problems and repeatedly collapsed. The zoo built a giant treadmill in hopes she’d get some exercise during the frigid Alaska winters (she was unimpressed). Today, Maggie is a mischievous charmer who cons her elephant friends at California’s Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary into giving up their goodies and favorite mud hole spots.
Or Sissy, who was chained and beaten with bats until her knees buckled and she fell to the ground at the El Paso Zoo. Now Sissy gets as much of her favorite food as she likes (carrots!) and explores the woods and hills of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Knowing all that we know about these magnificent animals makes condoning their suffering in circuses and zoos all the more indefensible. If you agree that elephants deserve better than to be beaten with bullhooks in the circus or spend decades in cramped zoo cages, never buy a ticket to either — and urge your legislators to pass legislation to make elephant abuse in Rhode Island illegal.
Delcianna Winders is a lawyer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.