Sixteen years ago today, Tyke , a 20 year old African elephant “owned” by the notorious Hawthorn Corporation, was killed. On August 20, 1994, she was performing with the Circus International in Hawaii when she killed her trainer and gored her groomer, then bolted from the arena and ran through the city for a half-hour, injuring several people before collapsing from the 86 police bullets fired into her. It took nearly two hours for her to die on the Honolulu street.
Tyke’s legacy, a growing worldwide awareness of the suffering of animals in circuses, continues to gather strength. We are working every day to nurture that awareness, and to transform it into action. Elephants in circuses endure intense confinement, social isolation and the constant threat of physical punishment. We aim to end these abusive practices and to prevent further injuries or deaths – elephant or human – resulting from the proximity between the public and these traumatized, highly stressed animals.
Tyke’s actions came as no surprise to anyone who was paying attention – at least three times in the 16 months prior to her last stand in Hawaii she had escaped her handlers, causing terror and injury to people and to property. Yet she continued to perform until her final hours.
This was not an isolated situation in which one overstressed, rebellious elephant slipped through the cracks; the “system” in place to prevent such occurrences is flawed almost to the point of nonexistence. An Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Audit released in June found that the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), whose job it is to ensure that exhibited animals are handled in a way that does not put the public or the animals at risk, is failing. Neither the inspection process nor the tracking of exhibitors works to safeguard animals or people.
Today there are at least 10 elephants with documented histories of lashing out or bolting who continue to perform around the nation – in close proximity to the public. Many of them are used to give rides to children. Since February of this year there have been three incidents that we know of (and who knows how many more that went unreported). Two elephants, Viola and an elephant with Ringling, escaped from their handlers, each narrowly missing crowds of circus-goers when they bolted; Viola was injured when she fell down a steep embankment in her attempt to flee. Another elephant, Dumbo lashed out and killed her longtime handler.
Despite all our efforts to find her, Dumbo’s whereabouts have been unknown since shortly after the killing in Pennsylvania; whether she is off the road or has vanished into the thousands of fairs around the country where anonymous elephants turn up for a few days at a time is anyone’s guess at this point. It does not appear that she is under any official travel restriction.
Both Viola and the elephant with Ringling, at last report, are still traveling, still performing, still stressed and miserable – and still putting crowds of people at serious risk.
Sixteen years ago today a person was killed, others were injured, and an elephant died in agony. The public is exposed daily to elephants who have clearly signaled their frustration with circus torture, and to others who have endured years of anguish and stress. We continue to honor Tyke’s memory and her legacy by working to end the use of elephants in circuses and traveling shows to end their suffering and before tragedy strikes again.
This blog was contributed by Deborah Robinson, IDA’s Captive Elephant Specialist.