A circus without elephants could be in the near future for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus if the plaintiffs, including ASPCA and the Animal Welfare Institute, succeed in their lawsuit that heads to trial this Wednesday. The lawsuit, which will be in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., aims to stop the prolonged use of chains and bullhooks in elephant training. According to the David Crary’s article, “the plaintiffs hope the lawsuit pressures Ringling Bros. to stop using elephants in its shows”.
The circus was never a big event for me as a child, I can only recall going once, but for some families it is a very popular attraction and even a tradition. Ringling Bros. argues that their audience surveys have shown elephants to be the “favorite attraction”. But at what cost?
The bullhook, or ankus, is a hook attached to a two or three foot handle. The bullhook is applied at sensitive points around the elephant’s body to cause it to recoil from the source of pain. Trainers employ this method of avoidance learning, in which a behavior results in the cessation of an unpleasant stimulus, to train the elephants. The problem is despite the fact that elephants appear to have tough skin, they actually have very sensitive skin. They take mud baths in the wild not only to protect their skin from sun exposure but as a coating that prevents damage due to loss of moisture, insect bites, and other environmental factors. Therefore, I personally feel that it is only reasonable to find this method of training inhumane.
In addition to the alarming use of bullhooks, the plaintiffs have shown, using Ringling Bros. train records, that elephants have been restrained by chains in railroad boxcars for an average of 26 hours at a time, sometimes as long as 60 to 70 hours while in transit. At night the elephants are also chained to prevent “them from foraging off their companions’ food”. While this is technically legal under current government regulations and for travel purposes is due to safety measures, is it fair to require these animals to remain sedentary for such long periods of time?
In some Asian cultures, the elephant’s memory and intelligence has been considered to be on par with hominids, which includes us, and cetaceans, which includes whales, porpoises, and dolphins. They are the largest land animal and have no natural predators. Yet the population of Asian elephants, which are traditionally used in circuses, is currently estimated to be 60,000, which is almost one-tenth of the current African elephant population.
Maltreatment by humans in captivity and hunting of wild elephants poses a great threat to these magnificent creatures. Furthermore, it has been shown that elephants in captivity often have shorter lifespans than their wild counterparts. So, before you decide to take your kids the next time the circus is in town, realize that your money has the power to tell companies, like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, how you feel about the treatment of their animals.
Image credit: Circus Knie by dirkjanranzijn on flickr under Creative Commons license