“During the course of my career, I’ve seen elephants being beaten who have no idea why they are being beaten or what is expected of them. They will start randomly lifting one leg, then another and another, lifting their trunk, hoping some trick will satisfy the trainer and make the beating stop. …Raising a baby elephant at Ringling is like raising a kid in jail.” (former Ringling trainer Sammy Haddock)
“I never saw a circus elephant make that face [a smiling one, indicating happiness]. They looked tired, weary, frustrated, angry, and so very sad. I stopped one of the assistant elephant handlers to ask why a particular elephant had tears pouring down the sides of her face. He laughed, ‘‘Cause she’s a bitch and the bitch got what was coming to her.’ He then pointed to the welt on the side of his face from where she had slapped him with her trunk. He then showed me his bull-hook, a two foot long stick with a metal hook on the end used to train elephants. ‘I gave her about ten good whacks across her skull. Bam! Bam! Bam!’ he demonstrated. ‘Bitch’ll think twice before she messes with Cowboy [a name given to him in prison].’” (former Ringling clown Andre du Broc)
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Greatest Show on Earth, arrives in Albany for eight performances this week. This article’s title may seem inflammatory and hyperbolic, but if it looks and sounds like slavery…
Given the elephant’s intelligence and cognitive depth (they are self-aware, use tools, grieve, have their own language, and retain cultural memory), their abuse and suffering (over a lifetime measured in decades) is particularly heartrending. Baby elephants are forcibly separated from their mothers and callously trained (some defecate upon hearing a trainer’s voice). Once promoted, they endure incessant traveling in cramped conditions; chains come standard. Stereotypical swaying and head-bobbing indicate profound emotional and psychological distress. Sometimes, they can’t endure any further. So, they rebel.
Animal advocates ask parents to consider the following before purchasing tickets:
First, and with healthy cynicism applied, ask what each side to the debate has at stake. Ringling remains enormously popular/profitable and to alter that model would be a corporate sin. In other words, money. Protesters are simply giving voice to the voiceless, acting only in the animals’ behalf.
Second, if you were an elephant, would you rather be roaming free on the African plains or wrenched, tied, manhandled, hooked, prodded, trucked, trekked, and chained? To be clear, performing elephants have nothing to do with elephant conservation (will Ringling ever return them to the wild?).
And third, would you want your child to witness this training process? The finished product appears to be innocuous fun; the means to effect that end are anything but. Would not the mother’s anguish upon losing her baby and the shrieks from the bullhook blows elicit a child’s innate compassion?
Animal Defenders International recently released this video from the UK’s Bobby Roberts Super Circus. It reveals the merciless beating (48 times) of a 57-year-old arthritic elephant (chained and helpless, of course) named Anne. Other animals are seen being hit and even spat upon. While watching, consider these insights from Bobby Roberts himself: “We take good care of her [Anne]. She is a family pet (2010).” And, “Anne has a good quality of life. It is absolutely ridiculous what they are saying (2011).” Predictably, the circus professes shock and blames “rogue workers.” But isn’t it astounding how often these miscreant employees surface? Like here. And here. And here.
A March 2010 poll shows that almost 95% of the British public supports a ban on using wild animals for entertainment. In the end, real and lasting change will only come when the masses want it. No amount of feeble regulation (and hollow oversight) will change this simple truth: as slaves, animals like Anne are utterly subject to the discretion of their owners (and agents). If they want to whack them with a bullhook, they can (and do). If they want to keep them chained and immobile for many straight hours, they can (and do). If they want to “fry” them with an electric prod, they can (and do). Waging battle with big commerce and entrenched convention (Ringling has been using elephants since 1872; I went as a child and took my own children) can be daunting. But power ultimately lies with the buying-public. There are many non-exploitative entertainment options for parents (including other circuses).
For its part, Ringling claims that the elephant’s “playtime activities form the basis for the performance routines you’ll see in the show. …these performances are extensions of their natural behavior.” And while not denying the use of bullhooks and chains, Ringling claims they serve merely to guide and provide safety. But doesn’t the use of sharp objects and heavy shackles necessarily imply an involuntary servitude? Slavery? The answer should be as clear and obvious as the giant elephant in the arena.