Performing Elephants

Circuses: Rings of abuse

Although some children dream of running away to join the circus, it is a safe bet that most animals forced to perform in circuses dream of running away from the circus. Their colourful pageantry disguises the fact that animals used in circuses are captives who are forced—under threat of punishment—to perform confusing, uncomfortable, repetitious, and often painful acts.

Circuses very quickly lose their appeal once you know about the cruel methods used to train the animals; the cramped confined conditions where they are forced to live; the unacceptable travelling conditions; poor treatment —not to mention what happens to them when they “retire.”

What you should know

A Life Far Removed From Home

In their natural wild environment elephants will travel many miles daily to find new and rich pasture to graze and water to drink and bath. But in captivity they are forced to spend most of their lives in cramped, barren cages and trailers used to transport them, where they have only enough room to stand and turn around. Most animals are only allowed out of their cages during the short periods whilst they must perform. Elephants are kept in leg shackles that prevent them from taking more than one step in any direction.

During the off-season, elephants used in circuses will be housed in travelling crates or barn stalls— some are even kept in the vehicle trailers they travel in. Such interminable confinement has harmful physical and psychological effects on the elephants, who are intelligent and display emotions: some of the common effects of stress are unnatural forms of behaviour such as repeated head-bobbing, swaying, and pacing.
The tricks that animals are forced to perform—such as when elephants stand on two legs—are physically uncomfortable and behaviourally unnatural. The whips, tight collars, electric prods, bull hooks, and other tools used during circus acts are reminders that the animals are being forced to perform. These “performances” teach audiences nothing about how animals behave under normal circumstances.

Beaten Into Submission

Physical punishment has always been the standard training method for all animals in circuses. Elephants, due to their physical size are beaten, shocked, and whipped to make them perform—over and over again—tricks that make no sense to them. Trainers drug some animals to make them “manageable” and surgically remove the teeth and claws of others.

Video footage shot during an undercover investigation of a well-known north American circus showed the animal-care director as he viciously attacked, yelled, cursed at, and shocked endangered Asian elephants. He then instructed other elephant trainers to beat the elephants with a bull hook as hard as they could; he then instructed them to sink the sharp hook into the animals’ flesh and twist it until they screamed in pain. The video also showed a handler who used a blowtorch to remove elephants’ hair as well as chained elephants who exhibited stereotypic behaviour caused by mental distress.
In a similar case with another circus the animal director confessed in court that when their elephants did not perform their act properly, they would be taken to the tent and laid down, and their five trainers would beat them with bull hooks. The former employee also told officials that during his three years working with elephants in the circus, “I can tell you that they live in confinement and they are beaten all the time when they don’t perform properly.”

Animals Rebel

Elephants are naturally intelligent and sensitive but captive animals sometimes snap under the pressure of constant abuse and make their feelings abundantly clear when they get a chance. One elephant Flora, who had been forced to perform in a circus and was later moved to a zoo, attacked and severely injured a zookeeper in front of visitors. In Florida: Janet, an elephant who ran away from trainers was shot dead with three terrified children still on her back. A police officer at the scene said “I think these elephants are trying to tell us that zoos and circuses are not what God created them for … but we have not been listening.”

Where does this occur?

As more people become aware of the cruelty involved in forcing elephants to perform, circuses that use animals are finding fewer places to set up their big tops. The use of animals in entertainment has already been restricted or banned in cities across the U.S. and in countries worldwide. For instance, Bolivia, Greece, Israel, Peru, and Sweden have banned the use of all animals in circuses, and the UK has prohibited the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.