Updated. Originally published September 2010. View original article here.
Elephants are the largest land animals in existence. A normal lifespan for an elephant is 70 years, but can live to be much older in the right environment. The female elephant bears offspring until about 50 years old, when they reach menopause.
Elephants thrive within a very supportive social system and complex family structures. The females live their lives in groups made up of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and cousins, led by the oldest matriarch. The adult males live either solitary lives or in bachelor herds.
Familiar elephants express affection by entwining trunks, playing, wrestling, caressing, and nuzzling. Elephants are known for their intelligence, memory and sensitivity, and display deep emotions such as love, grief, compassion and self-awareness. Mirror self-recognition is a test of self-awareness and cognition used in animal studies. Elephants recognized the fact that the image in the mirror is their own self, and such abilities are considered the basis for empathy, altruism and higher social interactions.
Elephants can communicate over long distances by producing and receiving a low-frequency sound, which can travel in the air and through the ground and can be felt by the sensitive skin of an elephant’s feet and trunk. To listen attentively, every member of the herd will lift one foreleg from the ground, and face the source of the sound, or often lay its trunk on the ground. The lifting presumably increases the ground contact and sensitivity of the remaining legs. This ability is thought also to aid their navigation by use of external sources of infrasound.
A new calf is usually the center of attention for herd members. The other elephants gather around the newborn, touching and caressing it with their trunks. Other females in the herd serve as “allomothers” who help to walk, raise, and protect the young one. These allomothers help babysit while the mother finds nutritious food which gives her milk more nourishment as well. In the wild, elephants nurse their babies until they are about 5 years of age. Baby elephants are raised in a nurturing environment where they are protected, comforted, taught to cope with life, and reassured – never punished. Daughters stay with their mothers for life, and the sons until 10-15 years of age.
At Ringling Brothers circus, baby elephants are separated from their mothers within months of birth. Ringling Brothers has a breeding ground in Florida, where they breed and raise elephants specifically for their circus. Sam Haddock, a former animal handler for Ringling Brothers, quit the circus due to the terrible abuse he was forced to inflict while “training” the elephants and other animals to perform unnaturally in the circus. Mr. Haddock reports that baby elephants are taken from their mothers before they are weaned. The staff ties the mother to a wall, ties the baby to another elephant, and then the staff people forcibly drag the baby away from the mother. All the while the baby and mother are screaming for each other. During the abusive so-called training process, the baby screams and struggles, while loud rock music is played to drown out their hopeless cries.
A weapon that resembles a fireplace poker called a bullhook (but called a “guide” by the circus) is used to force elephants to perform unnatural tricks. Mr. Haddock says, “The bullhook has one purpose: to inflict pain and punishment. I should know; I used to make them.” They also use pitchforks, blowtorches and electric prods. Ringling Brothers employs someone to apply a powder to conceal the wounds and stop the bleeding of elephants that have been hooked too hard, so that their injuries are not visible during the show. This is called “spot work.”
To train a baby elephant to stand on its head, a rope is tied around the baby’s trunk and pulled down between their front legs, while trainers use the bullhook to jab the tender spot behind the baby’s head so the baby won’t raise their head. The also jab the tender spots on the baby’s feet so it will keep their feet raised. To train the baby to lie down, his legs are tied up and pulled in different directions, so that the baby is slammed down to the ground, while being poked with bullhooks. To train a baby to sit on a pedestal, ropes are tied around their legs and they are forcibly pulled back onto the pedestal and jabbed with the bullhooks. An 8-month-old baby elephant was euthanized after he fractured both hind legs by falling from a circus pedestal. About 29 elephants have died in the hands of Ringling Brothers.
Ringling Elephant Department Head Joe Frisco testified in court that he whacks the elephants on their legs, the tips of their trunks and under their chins with the bullhook. A former co-worker of Frisco’s testified that he also use electric prods to shock them if they are not “cooperating.” They are routinely whipped in the face before going on stage. When the elephants urinate and defecate from fear during the abuse, they are beaten and electrocuted for this. If they defecate during a performance, they are beaten for this after they exit the ring. The elephants are most often left purposely dehydrated to lessen this occurrence. Ringling owner, Ken Feld, testified in court that allof his elephant handlers hit the elephants. In 2009, an undercover video shows Joe Frisco’s son, Joey, beating and whipping the
elephants on their heads and faces and calling them derogatory names. Alex Vargas of Circus Vargas has been caught on tape beating elephants as well (see www.ringlingbeatselephants.org). Ringling’s training methods tools are a terrifying blend of ropes, chains, bullhooks, pitchforks, blowtorches, electric-shock prods, maternal deprivation and corporal punishment. The only way to force wild animals to perform unnatural tricks like those used at Ringling’s circus is through threat of punishment.
Circus elephants have their 4 legs chained, which makes them immobile, for an average of 26 hours at a time, and often from 60-70 hours or more while traveling in boxcars. They are transported in travel trailers with unregulated temperature (often freezing cold or unbearably hot). Upon arrival to the circus site, they are stored in the parking lots outside of the tents.
In the circus, most animals die prematurely from stress, misery and disease. Circus animals deprived of their basic needs develop stereotypical behaviors of chronic mental stress and unhappiness, such as swaying back and forth, head-bobbing, pacing, bar-biting and self-mutilation.
Most circus elephants now carry a strain of tuberculosis that is highly contagious to humans. Also rampant is elephant pox and herpes.
Ringling Brothers has been sued by the ASPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Protection Institute, and The Fund for Animals because of their rampant animal abuse. They have been cited by the USDA at least 70 times for failure to comply with humane treatment laws, but unfortunately these fines are so small that the abuse continues.
What You Can Do:
Stop going to the circus! Let them know they are not welcome and that we do not support their abuse. Encourage your local township to not host the zoo in your town. Many townships have already done this successfully. Find out who your city council member is, and urge them to pass ordinances that prevent performing animal acts from coming to town and ban the use of the bullhook. For more information on how to do this, please contact Tweed Conrad at [email protected], or Eric at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at 323-351-0188.
Some excellent websites that you can visit for more information are:
Tweed Conrad is a native of Berkeley, CA, and graduated Magna cum Laude from UC Berkeley. She is a long time animal rights advocate and activist, involved in causes such as local animal rescue and banning performing animal acts from the circus. Elephants are among her favorite animals, due to their sensitivity, wisdom, and magnificent grace.