Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! You’re about to watch history unfold. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has a plan that could forever end the abuse of elephants in the world’s largest circus. PETA recently offered to provide a state-of-the art, high-tech animatronic “elephant” if the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus agrees to retire its real elephants—sparing them from painful lives in chains and servitude.
The animatronic elephant would be similar to the dinosaurs currently used in the popular “Walking With Dinosaurs, the Live Experience” show that is touring the U.S. Making the switch would provide all the thrills that kids love while giving Ringling’s old, ailing elephants the retirement they deserve.
Ringling has much to answer for: animals beaten bloody, babies torn from their mothers, animals—even those who are ill and disabled—forced to perform under the threat of punishment, animals locked in small cages or chained for most of their lives, elephants sickened with a highly contagious bacterial lung disease and many painful deaths.
No one who cares about the welfare of animals would fight proposed laws banning cruel training methods; employ chains and shackles to confine elephants; help defeat legislation designed to limit the number of hours per day that elephants can be chained; or imprison elephants and horses in putrid railroad cars and force big cats to live in barren steel cages. Ringling Bros. has done these things and more.
Ringling’s elephant trainers have been observed and videotaped beating elephants, including babies, with metal-tipped rods called bullhooks. Ringling zealously defends the use of this torturous tool, which commonly causes pain, suffering and trauma, including lacerations, puncture wounds, swelling and abscesses. Rich in nerve endings, elephants’ skin is extremely sensitive.
Elephants, who in the wild would walk up to 30 miles a day, are chained inside the reeking, squalid boxcars that transport them and can barely take even one step forward or back. This prolonged chaining is linked to deadly foot disorders, arthritis, colic and stereotypic behavior, such as swaying. It’s no wonder that PETA has videotaped lame elephants limping out of Ringling’s boxcars during the animal walk and that about a third of the more than two dozen elephant deaths at the circus have been attributable to either osteoarthritis or a chronic foot problem.
Despite the intensely close bonds between female elephants and their offspring, Ringling shatters the social network that is vital to elephants’ well-being by violently pulling still-nursing baby elephants from their mothers. Sometimes, the terrified calves are injured in the process, and the mothers typically go into a deep depression. Scientists report that early disruption of the bonding and rearing process produces lifetime emotional scars and dysfunctional behavior in the offspring.
In 2006 alone, Ringling was cited three times for failure to provide adequate veterinary care to a disabled elephant, an elephant with a large swelling on her rear leg and a camel with bloody wounds. Also in 2006, Ringling was cited for improper handling of dangerous animals and for causing trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and discomfort to two young elephants who sustained cuts and abrasions when they ran amok in an arena in Puerto Rico.
Another frightening reason Ringling’s elephants should be taken off the road is that a human strain of tuberculosis has been diagnosed in 12 percent of captive Asian elephants in the U.S., including many at Ringling. An official with the Zoological Society of San Diego warns, “The possibility of an epidemic exists and reciprocal transmission between humans and elephants could have devastating consequences.”
Ringling has everything to gain and nothing to lose by taking PETA up on our offer. It’s time for the circus to shift to acts that an ever-demanding public is interested in and leave the broken, dispirited elephants behind.
RaeLeann Smith is a circus and government affairs specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.Circuses.com.