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Elephant Life in U.S. Circuses

While we all enjoy the glitz, glitter and acrobatics of the circus, few of us think of what circus life means to the animals.
Elephants, tigers, bears, camels, zebras and other animals spend their lives on the road virtually year round, shuffled from parking lot to parking lot, locked in tiny cages and on train cars or trucks for days at a time. They are trained with physical punishment: bullhooks, whips, electrical prods and other devices are routinely used to inflict pain and fear to force the elephants, tigers and other animals to perform.

The plight of elephants in circuses is particularly troubling. Elephants are majestic creatures who are intelligent and self-aware. They are among the most socially- bonded animals on the planet, and display a complex array of emotions, including expressions of grief and compassion. They mourn their dead, use tools, and communicate with each other over vast distances through sound. They are biologically designed to browse, constantly on the move for 18 or more hours out of the day, even where food is readily available.

Elephants in circuses lead miserable lives.

Enslaved in circuses, far removed from conditions they need to thrive, elephants:

  • Spend days at a time chained in cramped train cars or trucks, eating and sleeping in their own excrement, exposed to temperature extremes, for much of their lives. When not in transit, they are chained or confined in tiny pens, usually on concrete.
  • Perform unnatural tricks that are often damaging to their bodies. Wild elephants do not stand on their heads or on two legs.
  • Often display neurotic behavior, such as swaying and head-bobbing, from boredom and severe stress.
  • Suffer from painful foot and joint disease, a leading cause of premature death in captive elephants, from standing too long on hard surfaces and in their own waste.
  • Frequently contract or are exposed to a human strain of tuberculosis (TB). TB is known to thrive in the cramped, close quarters that they are forced to endure day in and day out. In several instances, elephants known to be suffering from TB have been used to give rides to the public.

Circuses tear families apart

Elephants have intense family bonds. Wild females stay with their mothers, aunts and cousins for life. Males do not leave the herd until their teens. The entire extended elephant family helps nurture and care for the young.

Most of the elephants performing in circuses today were captured from the wild, violently separated from their mothers, and shipped to the U.S. when they were very young. Every Asian elephant taken from the wild has endured a brutal breaking process (“the crush”), which involves beatings with nail-studded sticks, sleep-deprivation, hunger, and thirst to break the animals’ spirits. Elephants born into captivity in circuses are routinely torn from their mothers as infants younger than two years old, for training and performance.

Circuses do not promote conservation

The population of Asian elephants is highly endangered, with few remaining in the wild today. African elephants are also threatened. Wild elephants are victims of habitat loss and illegal poaching, and are killed as a result of human-elephant conflicts in their ever-dwindling home ranges.

The circus is a consumer rather than conserver of elephants. The brutality of circus life kills elephants so quickly that the death rate exceeds the birth rate.
No baby elephant born to a circus will ever be returned to the wild. The few captive breeding programs that exist in circuses are all about replenishing the supply of tormented performers who will die prematurely as the result of their treatment and living conditions.

A life of heartbreak

For anyone who knows how elephants are meant to live and act, seeing these complex, family-centered individuals chained and broken, and performing demeaning tricks, is simply heartbreaking, so imagine how the elephants themselves feel.

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