By most accounts, the life of a circus elephant isn't easy: There are long stretches of traveling by train, from town to town, chained in place and standing in your own shit. There's performing bizarre tricks for literal peanuts, and if you don't do what you're told, your trainer might just whack you on the head with a bullhook—a long, sharp-ended implement traditionally used to keep elephants under control.
While performing elephants were the main draw to America's three-ring circuses in the 19th and 20th centuries, circuses don't have much appeal anymore. Even the Ringling Bros, the "The Greatest Show on Earth," recently announced that its remaining cast of elephant performers will soon be sent into retirement. Their new home, as of May 1, will be a remote, 200-acre facility in Central Florida, where the elephants will live out their days feasting on hay and fruit and grazing in quiet fields.
Animal rights activists applauded the decision, but they aren't as stoked on this conservation facility, where the circus company will continue breeding its elephants, and also take blood samples from them for its cancer research program. According to a new report from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the site is little more than a glorified breeding compound where elephants spend hours chained up in barns, live under control of the bullhook, and deal with rampant foot injuries and tuberculosis outbreaks.
The Ringling Bros' Center for Elephant Conservation, which originally opened in 1995, currently houses 31 elephants. Recent news reports describe it as an idyllic place far away from cheering carnival crowds. They show retired elephants with giant tires to play with, bamboo and big piles of sand to romp on, and experienced handlers and veterinarians to care for them.
PETA's picture of the facility is significantly darker. The 13-page report, culled from court testimony, veterinary records, and medical research, offers accounts of bullhook abuse and examples of electric prods being used on elephants at the center. It argues that the center has been a "hotbed" for tuberculosis—according to medical documents cited in the report, 29 of Ringling Bros' elephants (most of them living at the center) had tested reactive to tuberculosis in 2011—a potentially deadly disease that's transmissible to humans.
The report also says that elephants at the center are chained in place by their legs every night and held in barns with hard concrete floors—conditions that, according to medical research and veterinarian testimony, make them "prone to arthritis, infection, and psychological stress."
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment—the parent company for the Ringling Bros, which owns the conservation center in Florida—called PETA's latest allegations as "a complete work of fiction." Yes, the elephants sleep on concrete floors, and yes, they use bullhooks (Feld Entertainment insists the implements are harmless, akin to putting a leash on a dog; animal rights leaders disagree). But Payne says vets continually examine the elephants' feet to make sure they're healthy, and as for TB, only one elephant currently in their care has tested positive for the disease and is undergoing treatment. (Payne denied there were 29 cases of TB in 2011.) He argued that elephant-to-human transmission is "quite rare," though, and both the staff and elephants are tested regularly for everyone's safety.
All in all, he maintains that the Florida facility is a safe and healthy environment for the circus's herd of 42 Asian elephants, and its breeding program is a way to preserve the Asian elephants in North America.
"We are working to save an endangered species," Payne told me.
But other experts say forcing these elephants to breed in captivity misses the point. Susan Nance, a historian at the University of Guelph in Ontario and the author of two books on circus elephants in America, says public opinion on elephants shifted in the 1940s—first, with Disney's release of Dumbo, and later with the advent of wildlife documentaries. Nance said that these showed audiences that elephants were intrinsically valuable outside of our own self-serving interests. Now, people are more wary of forcing animals to do unnatural things for our personal benefit—but places like Feld Entertainment's facility show otherwise.
"It just shows, I still think, how they don't get what the public sentiment is," Nance said. "The whole premise of the Ringling point of view is that these animals are here for us to use."
Payne balked at the PETA-approved sanctuaries listed in the new report, which includes a 2,300-acre site in San Andreas, California, that's run by the animal welfare nonprofit Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS. The sanctuary has green grass, ponds, large barns, and an indoor pool, and its staff relies on a hands-off approach known as "protected contact," in which they forego bullhooks in favor of safety barriers and let elephants basically do what they want.
"These quote 'sanctuaries' that PETA lauds so much praise on are managing the species to extinction," Payne said. "They're not conserving an endangered species. If we don't do what we do with the zoos and other conservation institutions, within a generation, there won't be any Asian elephants in North America."
Ed Stewart, the president and co-founder of PAWS, told me lasting elephant preservation will not happen by making more elephant babies in North America. Instead, we need efforts to save elephants' natural habitats back home in Africa and Asia from encroachment and development. The very idea of captivity, even when it comes to his own sanctuary, makes him uncomfortable.
"I don't drive through our place and look at the elephants up on the hill eating grass and say, 'Gee, this is so great for them.' I look at the fence and say, 'They're going to go to the end and hit the fence.' I wish elephants weren't behind fences," Stewart said. "I think, basically, it's unethical to put an animal in a situation where you know they're going to be deprived their whole life."
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