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.

In 1984 Derby founded the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which operates three large sanctuaries in California for abused animal actors.

Currently five Asian elephants live at one of the sanctuaries.

Derby said she has developed a method of elephant handling that does not use chains or bull hooks—three-foot-long (one-meter-long) tools shaped like fireplace pokers.

Derby's facility was the first to use the "nondominance" technique successfully, she says, and it has been a model for elephant handlers around the country.

Unfortunately, the method won't work with circus elephants. Using force to bully and boss the giant creatures, Derby says, is the only way to quickly load them into a truck or trailer for transportation—or to have them perform on cue.

The constant traveling, up to 50 weeks a year, is also detrimental to the mental and physical well-being of circus animals, she said. Elephants are transported from one city to the next in railroad cars or truck semi-trailers. Trips can last from a few hours to several days.

"The release of elephants from traveling shows is critical," Derby said. "They really don't have the opportunity in a circus community for any kind of a good quality of life."

In the wild, elephants migrate over long distances and live in highly intelligent and well-structured social groups. But in circuses, Derby said, they don't have much opportunity to bond with other elephants. And if they do, those relationships are often severed when one is traded or sold.

Behavioral Studies

Ted Friend, a professor at Texas A&M University's Department of Animal Science in College Station, has conducted several behavioral studies on circus elephants, including one on the effects of transportation.

A time-lapse video camera was used to record the behavior of elephants while traveling in semi-trailers and railroad cars. The animals were owned by four circus operators: Clyde Beatty (now called Cole Brothers), Hawthorn Corporation, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, and Carson & Barnes.

Elephants were frequently observed weaving—a repetitive shifting of weight from side to side. While doing this, they also ate, threw hay on their backs, and looked out the window.

The 2001 study concluded that weaving during transport did not appear to be indicative of poor welfare, because the elephants were engaged in other activities and not in a trancelike state.

In a telephone interview Friend said the behavior is not an indication that the animals are psychotic or stressed.

Increased weaving has also been observed prior to elephants being given hay or water and before performing. Friend, who is a certified animal behaviorist, believes the elephants weave repetitively in anticipation, or excitement, of what is about to occur.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which conducts routine inspections of circuses to make sure they are in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.

Elephants Impounded

The USDA is the only agency with authority to enforce the Animal Welfare Act.

On March 17, 2004, APHIS inspectors, for the first time in the history of the agency, ordered the removal of an entire heard of circus elephants from an Illinois company because of mistreatment and mishandling.

John F. Cuneo, owner of Hawthorn Corporation, admitted guilt on 19 charges of violating the Animal Welfare Act, including failing to handle elephants in a manner that did not cause physical harm, behavioral stress, and trauma.

The 16 elephants, two of which tested positive for tuberculosis, must be placed in new homes by August 15. The company also agreed to pay a fine of U.S. $200,000.

While encouraged by the USDA's settlement with Hawthorn, animal rights activists claim federal investigators don't enforce the law when it comes to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, one of the biggest, and most famous, circuses in the country.

Michael Markarian, president of the Fund For Animals in Silver Spring, Maryland, says his organization has compiled a report containing hundreds of records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The report shows the USDA closed investigations prematurely and overrode its own inspectors' determinations of violation of the law—allowing Ringling Brothers to claim that there is no truth to any allegations that it abuses its elephants.

The Fund for Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) filed a lawsuit against Ringling Brothers in 2000 for alleged mistreatment, including beating its Asian elephants with bull hooks, constant chaining, and forcible separation of babies from their mothers.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind and is expected to be heard early next year in the federal district court in Washington, D.C., says attorney Katherine Meyer, who represents the animal-welfare groups.

Spokespeople for the USDA and Ringling Brothers said they do not comment on pending litigation.

In a September 2003 press release, Ringling states, "The fact that our record is an admirable one is clearly upsetting to ASPCA. Unable to find evidence to support its wild accusations against Ringling Bros., ASPCA has turned on the USDA in an apparent attempt to intimidate this federal agency."

Ringling "Has an Excellent Record"

On its Web site, Ringling states that the display and care of elephants and other performing animals are subject to animal-welfare laws and regulations at the federal, state, and local levels. "Ringling Bros. has an excellent record of care for all our animals," the circus company says.

Tom Rider, a former Ringling Brothers employee, travels around the country speaking out against what he calls the "systematic daily abuse of circus elephants."

From June 1997 to November 1999, Rider worked as an afternoon "barn man" whose job was to feed and clean up after the elephants.

He claims to have seen handlers hitting elephants with bull hooks behind their heads, legs, and ears. Afterward, he said, the elephants had large, bleeding wounds.

"Most of the time the hitting was done because they wouldn't do the command fast enough," Rider said. "One time, my boss was mad at his wife and came in and beat the elephants."

Rider said he also has videotapes showing harsh, abusive treatment by Ringling Brothers employees. The footage, he said, was taken between 1992 and 2003.

Ringling says its training methods are based on reinforcement in the form of food rewards and words of praise. The company says verbal or physical abuse and the withholding of food or water are strictly prohibited.

Rider is part of the lawsuit against Ringling. In the past his traveling expenses were paid for by the ASPCA and the Fund for Animals. Rider is currently being paid by a California woman, but he would not reveal her name or comment further on the relationship.

"I'm not in this for a living," Rider said. "I've devoted my life to these elephants, and until these elephants are out of the Ringling Brothers circus, this is what I'm going to do."

Endangered Species?

The controversy surrounding circus elephants and their treatment may be dying a natural death—not because of city bans or a truce between activists and circuses, but because the captive elephant population in North America's zoos and circuses is not reproducing fast enough to sustain itself.

Whereas there are an estimated 300 elephants currently in captivity in North American zoos and circuses, one study predicts that in 50 years only 17 elephants will be left, and those will be too old to breed.

The Endangered Species Act currently prohibits the import of Asian elephants without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To obtain a permit, requests must show that the activity would enhance the survival of the elephants in the wild and that the animals would not be used primarily for commercial purposes.

In October a change to the law was proposed that would allow zoos and circuses to import Asian elephants. The resulting public opposition caused the agency to review the proposed amendment. A final decision has not been made, according to a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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