Elephant Abuse Charges Add Fuel to Circus Debate

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
April 6, 2004

Should elephants perform in circuses?

It's a simple question that's caused a lot of controversy over the years.

At the heart of the matter are allegations by animal-welfare activists that brutal training methods are used to coerce elephants—which can weigh as much as 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms)—into performing tricks such as headstands.

Activists aren't the only ones concerned. Some three dozen communities in 15 U.S. states ban, restrict, or regulate animal performances. Localities that have banned circuses, rodeos, and other animal acts include Stamford, Connecticut; Hollywood, Florida; Boulder, Colorado; and Pasadena, California.

Denver may soon be added to the list. Residents there will vote in August on whether to ban circuses with animal acts from performing within the city limits. The city council was obliged to put the question on the ballot after a 15-year-old girl collected the required 6,000 signatures.

In Massachusetts lawmakers will vote on a statewide ban on circus animals later this year.

The use of elephants, the largest of the land mammals, for amusement draws particular umbrage from activists. About 300 Asian and African elephants are believed to be living in North America's zoos and circuses. Many of them are kept in conditions that are far removed from their natural habitat of large tracts of wilderness. Circuses particularly are under fire.

Dominique Jando, creative director of the Circus Center in San Francisco, says only a small, vocal group of people opposes circuses with performing animals. The nonprofit organization operates the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, the New Pickle Circus (a professional performing company), and a student-performing troupe, the San Francisco Youth Circus. The New Pickle Circus is one of about 20 circuses in the U.S. that does not use animals in its shows.

Circus operators frequently survey audiences, and the vast majority of people want to see animals, especially elephants, Jando said.

"We are in a very urban civilization, which means people will complain about wild animals in captivity or complain about methods of training, which is completely ridiculous," he said. "It doesn't mean that there have not been people brutalizing animals. But it's not a rule—far from it."

Cruelty and Ignorance

Animal trainer Pat Derby has worked on the set of popular television shows like Flipper, Gun Smoke, and Lassie. What she discovered behind the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, she says, was a profession rampant with cruelty and ignorance.

Continued on Next Page >>


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