Life of a circus elephant

Animal-rights activists allege mistreatment of circus elephants

Former circus performer, Lota, was rescued and placed in a sanctuary, but died three months later.

Former circus performer, Lota, was rescued and placed in a sanctuary, but died three months later.

Courtesy Of PETA

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Deep in the bush of Asia, an elephant is born. Moments later, the excited members of the herd crowd around the newborn, smelling her, helping her stand, affectionately stroking her with their trunks and directing her to her mother’s teats for her first suckle.

The baby has already begun to learn what it means to be an elephant. These eager, helpful members of the herd are her sisters, aunts, wise, old grandmother and her mother. And as she grows she’ll form unique relationships with each of them as individual as our own. With her herd she will roam over a home range that stretches several hundred miles, internalizing the location of food sources and watering holes that she too will one day pass on to her children. She will learn to rumble and squeal and vocalize, to communicate every range of emotion. She will learn the delight of dust and mud baths that protect her surprisingly delicate skin. And the bond she has with her family will be so strong that she will put herself in harm’s way to protect them. This is what it means to be an elephant.

It is an existence we will never see in America. One we were never meant to see here. Even so, I imagine there are those out there who might say, “What are you talking about crazy lady? I just saw elephants at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in Sacramento three weeks ago.”

Let me clarify what they really saw. Most of those 10 beautiful elephants from Asia draped with glamorous headdresses and garb once roamed free through the Asian forest as babies in highly sensitive and intelligent herds. In the same forest, they were captured, watched their mothers slaughtered and were torn from their families and home.

As I listened to Nicole Paquette, director of legal and government affairs and general counsel at the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, recount the training and life of a circus elephant, I felt sick.

“They must break the animal that is such an intelligent being by putting a fear-based dominance in that relationship,” she said. “Various tools are used—the bullhook, electric prods and whips.” API has undercover video confirming the brutality.

According to Paquette, the bullhook—a sharp, metal curved point on the end of a baton—is used to train an elephant by jabbing, beating and lacerating as the hook is forcefully shoved deep into the elephant’s skin, which contrary to what you may think is so sensitive an elephant can feel a mosquito bite.

Although the use of a bullhook, also known as an “ankus,” is USDA-approved, it cannot be used in an abusive manner that causes wounds or injuries.

What Ringling attendees saw at the Sacramento Ringling Bellobration circus was a collective 10 minutes and 55 seconds of exciting elephant performances. What they didn’t see was the life of these circus elephant when they are not performing.

Elephant herds walk up to 25 miles a day. By contrast, circus elephants live nearly 20 hours a day in shackles, chained by one leg in front and one in the back, unable to move, according to Paquette. She added that a Ringling elephant spends up to 11 months of the year traveling in a solitary box car in chains.

In 1970, the introduction of the Endangered Species Act prevented the take of Asian elephants, an endangered species. For wild Asian elephants, the ESA was a victory and a legal right to live a life of freedom. And in 2001, the ESA served as the foundation for litigation against Ringling Bros. for the protection of elephants in the company’s captivity.

The ESA defines “take” as “harass, harm, injure, hurt, wound, kill.” The lawsuit alleges that the acts of forceful use of bullhooks, the chaining of elephants for most of their lives and the forcible removal of baby elephants from their mothers at Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, where they are bred to replace aging performers, violates the ESA, Paquette said.

Petitioners of the lawsuit, the API, the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals and Tom Rider, an ex-Ringling employee, recently received a major ruling in the discovery portion of the lawsuit that has lasted nearly six years. On August 23, 2007, the judge denied the Ringling Bros. petition to dismiss the case and ordered the discovery phase to end on December 31, 2007, and the schedule for trial to be set.

Ringling Bros. could not be reached for comment on this story.

So you see, when someone says they see an elephant in America, here is what you should tell them. It is what Pat Derby, founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society told me: “They don’t really see what they are. You see the shell of an elephant. You are not seeing an elephant.”

And while seven Asian and four African elephants, all former performers, live at PAWS’ paradise sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif., with hundreds of acres of varied habitat to roam freely and lakes to bathe in, there was still an undeniable sadness in Derby’s voice as she spoke.

“They will never live in a herd,” she said. “They won’t migrate for food. They won’t breed nor have calves that live with them. We can’t give that back to them, but we give them a life as close to the one they would have had in the wild. Even so, it is only second best.”

When we launched Green Days, we defined sustainability as a road map to redefine and preserve a quality of life for generations to come, be they human, furry, feathered, scaly, finned, or in this case wrinkly skinned. We have the responsibility to govern with intelligence and respect for those who depend on us and to teach our children appreciation for the natural world.

It is now your turn to make a difference. Talk to your legislators. Assemblyman Lloyd Levine carried a bill in California for the last two years to address the ethical treatment and care of captive elephants that parallels their intelligence and needs, rather than human convenience. The bill received two-thirds of the votes it needed. Damn it, people! Read the book Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer, known as “one of the first animal trainers to use affection and kindness to train wild animals.” You’ll never go to a circus with performing animals again. And, easiest of all, tell someone. An elephant’s life depends on it.

To learn more, join me tonight, October 11, on 90.3 FM, KDVS’ Radio Parallax, between 5 and 6 p.m., or listen to the podcast at under “Shows.”