For more than a century, elephants were ubiquitous in the circus world. Their historical and cultural presence is evidenced in elephant marches through New York City, rides and photo opportunities for children, even the cartoon character Dumbo.
But tamed elephants are tortured elephants. The time has come to ban their use in circuses and all forms of entertainment.
The sheer beauty, size, and presence of these magnificent animals have inspired childhood imaginations for generations, but belie an ugly secret side that lurks behind the scenes. Imagine this: a baby elephant stolen from its mother, subjected to systematic beatings and piercings with a bull hook, an instrument that looks like a sharpened fire poker. It spends its young life being coerced into performing in physiologically stressful contortions, otherwise known as entertainment tricks.
To ensure its full submission and its owner’s total domination the elephant is then shackled and placed in a concrete cell, with only enough space to turn around, where it must stand for up to 20 hours a day. Its screams and cries are ignored. When outside alone its ankles are chained to assure the safety of the public. All of this is designed to break the animal physically and psychologically.
Biologically, elephants are designed to roam up to 30 miles a day but because they are forced to stand in a concrete cell, they develop myriad health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and fatal foot disease, in addition to many other physical and psychological maladies. Elephants, like humans, need interaction with their own species. The confined cells, restricted mobility and lack of social contact lead to severe depression and anxiety. It is no surprise elephants live half as long in captivity as in the wild.
As these stark realities have become known, public perception and opinion about elephants in entertainment have shifted. In fact, Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus is removing their elephants from circus performing to a sanctuary this spring. The announcement came after decades of protest, and after cities across the United States implemented bans, making it difficult for Ringling Brothers to travel, perform, and house their elephants.
In a telling statement to The New York Times, Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling, said, “Rather than fight city hall, we decided to take those resources and use them for conservation of the species.” National Geographic Magazine quoted a rare moment of candor from a member of the Feld family:
In an interview with the Associated Press, a Feld Entertainment executive vice president acknowledged a “mood shift” among the circus’s consumers.
“A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants,” said the executive, Alana Feld.
Economic benefits from the use of elephants in entertainment accrue solely to the owners of the elephants, and the circuses and fairs that use them. The local cultural, economic, and social boosts in are temporary at best. Jennifer Fearing, chief economist of the Humane Society of the United States, reported that traveling entertainment acts that come to Massachusetts do not produce new economic benefits, but instead redistribute discretionary spending which would otherwise be spent locally. She concluded that new economic activity must be spent by new visitors from outside the local region. Economists also conclude that entertainment acts without elephants have better economic outcomes.
It is morally unjust to use elephants in entertainment and conveys the wrong message to both child and adult. The Environmental Policy Clinic at Pace University in Pleasantville has drafted an Elephant Protection Act, which aims to prohibit elephants from entertainment acts in New York State by 2018. We are working with members of the both houses of the state legislature to have the bill introduced this session. If enacted, the bill will hopefully set a precedent for other states and perhaps even Congress.
Pavan Naidu is a Pace University political science major and a member of the Circus Team of the Pace Environmental Policy Clinic. His interests include global policy and international relations. He will graduate in May. At left, NEWS 12 interviews Pavan Naidu about mistreatment of elephants in circuses.