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The saddest show on Earth

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In their natural homes, elephants live for more than 70 years; their average life span in captivity is just 14 years. Because of stress, travel in boxcars and time spent stabled in damp basements, many captive elephants have arthritis, lame legs and tuberculosis.

Left to their own devices in their homelands, elephants are highly social beings who enjoy extended family relationships. Aunts babysit, mothers teach junior life skills such as how to use different kinds of leaves and mud to ward off sunburn and insect bites, babies play together under watchful eyes, lovemaking is gentle and complex and elephant relatives mourn their dead.

In captivity, elephants are deprived of all these experiences. Life under the big top means "pay attention to your trainers, feel the bite of their implements in your flesh, don't stumble or falter even if you feel tired or ill, obey, obey, obey." It means leg chains between acts, the loss of all comfort and warmth from your father and mother and no long-term friends.

Behaviorists tell us that elephants can and do cry from the loss of social interaction and from physical abuse. Yes, cry. If you wonder how these magnificent beings keep from going mad-waiting in line night after night, eyes riveted on the person with the metal hook, ready to circle to the music in their beaded headdresses-perhaps the answer is, they don't. PETA's investigator at Ringling documented stereotypical behavior, which is typically seen in animals who are suffering from extreme stress caused by a lack of anything to do, the inability to move around, severe frustration and desolation.

Sometimes, elephants stop behaving like wind-up toys and crush the bones and breath out of a keeper, make a break for it, go berserk or run amok. But most simply endure. Their spirits were broken during their capture and, later, God help them, when they were trained for the ring. Otherwise, they would all use their immense strength to fight back against the human hand of tyranny. They would refuse to be kept chained between performances like coats on a rack, refuse to be backed up ramps into railroad cars and trailers like so many cars being parked out of the way.

Ringling and other circuses have made it clear that they have no intention of stopping their abusive practices. And the law-which provides minimal requirements for cage size and little else-does not protect animals in circuses. It's up to us to say "enough is enough."

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Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; Her latest book is The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights .

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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), with more than 5 million members and supporters, is the largest animal rights organization in the world. PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals (more...)

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