WATCH: Former Elephant Keeper Reveals Shocking Circus Secrets
For World Circus Day on April 17, we’re offering you a rare peek behind the curtain. A former elephant keeper has revealed in grisly detail what really happens to performing animals. Please watch and share our exclusive video interview.
"That was the cruelty. Never kid yourself."
Interviews with circus workers are extremely rare. Workers are hard to find, and very few are prepared to speak out about the animal cruelty they witnessed.
At 16 years old, Max Brandrett got his first job at Chipperfield’s Circus in the UK as an elephant groom. Now, decades later, he is sharing the animals’ stories for the first time.
Please bear witness to circus suffering by watching the short videos below or the full 10-minute interview. Then share them to speak out for animals suffering in circuses today.
Training Circus Elephants:
How do elephants learn tricks?
"She was very heavily bleeding... it took two or three days to get her feet back to normal."
Captive elephants are often trained to perform tricks through deprivation of food, water, and rest, and by physical restraint, pain, and fear. Max describes how he was woken at night to bring frightened elephants into the circus ring for training sessions. The curtains were drawn, and he was sent away to prevent him from witnessing the training. For 90 minutes, he could hear the whip cracking and commands shouted at the elephants.
It is well known that circuses use cruel implements like bullhooks and electric shock devices to control elephants. The former groom describes how the circus owners would make elephants bleed by jabbing behind their ears with one or two spiked walking sticks to force them to move forward, backward, kneel down, or rear on their back legs. Cracking the whip at the same time they’re being jabbed associates the sound of the whip with the sensation of pain, so they will perform the same movement in the ring when only the whips are cracked.
Max witnessed elephants “heavily bleeding” from their toenails after these training sessions, requiring treatment and preventing them from performing. He describes how the elephant trainer tried to pass off the wounds as accidents. However, the elephants were intentionally injured in the fleshy part of their delicate and sensitive toes when they failed to obey commands or to force a desired motion away from the source of pain.
Zoochosis - Boredom & Brain Damage:
What do elephants do when they’re not performing?
"They are now chained up with nothing to do, nothing… 24/7 chained up like that… The boredom in those cages is disgusting."
Captive animals show their mental anguish through abnormal behavior. Max describes signs of psychological damage he saw manifested as obsessive, repetitive actions of circus elephants suffering from “zoochosis.”
Max’s first question as an elephant keeper was, “Why are they all bobbing up and down?” In time, he learned each elephant had their own unique obsessive movements. Max correctly links these signs of zoochosis with circuses’ extremely deprived conditions. He explains how the elephants were always “chained up with nothing to do, nothing. They can't move, only a certain restricted area. Well, about 10 paces forward.”
Max shared his disgust at the conditions for animals in the circus, including elephants, tigers, lions, chimpanzees, and bears, all of whom suffer the same crushing boredom in the circus.
What is zoochosis?
Do circus owners love their animals?
"They didn't care… Any animal who has to do that [perform], there's always cruelty."
Max passionately states how circus owners love money, not animals. “That's all it was about, money. They didn't care.” He describes the “show must go on” ethos and exposes the absurdity of circus owners’ claims that animals love performing when they’re chained up 24/7.
"‘Oh, they love doing it’ — They did not! They much prefer to be bloody free and be doing what they want to do. Not performing."
He explains how the elephants knew who did not care for them and would act out their frustrations. “If they could get you, if they could sort of throw something at you, especially Sally, she would.”
How are lions treated?
"We do have to extract their teeth… we withdraw those [claws] on two of the lions."
It’s not just elephants who suffer in the circus. Max exposes the cruel tricks used to prevent lions and crocodiles from defending themselves against their captors.
The lion tamer extracted lions’ teeth and claws, and another performer taped up a crocodile’s mouth with a clear cord so she could wrestle the reptile without injuring herself.
Circus attacks and escapes are surprisingly common. In 1980, two lions escaped from Chipperfield’s Circus onto school property.
Animal circuses put the safety of performers, the public, and animals at risk. Most often, the animals end up dead.
Fighting & Tusks:
What was your first impression as a groom?
"We used to saw off the tusks. All the tusks are gone."
Lions aren’t the only animals to suffer mutilations at the circus. Max says elephants are disfigured at the circus by sawing off their tusks. But even with their defenses removed, frustrated animals are a danger to themselves, to humans, and other animals.
Max describes how one serious fight broke out between two elephants, resulting in floorboards pulled up from their chained feet.
Why don’t elephants poop in the ring?
"I don't think it was nice for the elephants, I don't think, not for me as well."
Have you ever wondered why elephants don’t poop in the circus ring? Max reveals another awful circus secret that is widely unknown and rarely discussed.
Keepers prepare elephants for circus performances by putting on harnesses, painting their toenails, and emptying their rectums. Max was shown how to soap up his arm, push it into the elephants’ anuses, and pull out all the feces. All 12 elephants endured this invasive procedure twice daily before each circus show.
“Raking out” elephants ensures the glamor of the performance isn’t interrupted by defecating in the ring.
Circuses’ Emotional Toll:
How do you feel now about your time in the circus?
"‘I'm gonna take your life, and I'm gonna give you nothing.’ That's what hurts so much… It shouldn't bloody happen."
The former elephant keeper bared his feelings of guilt and sadness at the elephants’ lifetime imprisonment and the severing of their relationships when they were sold off.
Max empathizes with the elephants in a way that few can. Having been imprisoned himself, what he finds particularly painful is that the elephants have no hope of ever getting out of the circus.
Years after Max’s time, Chipperfield’s Circus disbanded and made national news. The former keeper shares how he cried upon seeing a photo of an open railway truck. Two of his former charges had linked trunks before heading in different directions.
"It was like the last bloody goodbye that really got to me. I didn't even want to save it because I kept thinking about it… they all split… that's the saddest photograph."
Elephants are highly social animals who form close bonds. In the wild, females stay together for life. When circuses or zoos sell or loan elephants to different entities, they cause transfer abuse, painfully severing close bonds between elephants who may never see their closest kin again.
In an emotional plea, the former circus elephant keeper explains why he has shared his experiences. Max dearly hopes his testimony will end the cruelty of using animals in circuses.
An Animal Defenders International investigation later exposed an elephant beaten with an iron bar and the kicking and thrashing of a baby chimp at Chipperfield’s Circus. It led to animal cruelty convictions, but these were no isolated incidents: violence and cruelty are central to animal circuses.
Although many states and countries have banned or restricted animal performances, animal circuses are still legal in most places in the United States. Please take action now for animals suffering in circuses.
What You Can Do
1. Act now to free elephants from circuses: idausa.org/circus
2. Watch the full interview below and share: