The Human Spirit: A somber day at the circus

That elephants suffer in circuses is one of those so-called facts everyone seems to know, although I was unable to find proof.

May 25, 2016 18:55
4 minute read.
Ringling circus

Elephants perform in the Ringling circus. (Left) The author meets one of the pachyderms in the ‘retirement’ center.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Eleven exceptional elephants.

No, not Dr. Seuss.

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Eleven exceptional elephants went into retirement this month. They are the last Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus elephants. The symbol of The Greatest Show on Earth is gone.

Like most folks, I like a circus, but I’m not one of zealous circus aficionados who belong to circus organizations.

What worries me is that radical animal activists who claim to know what’s best for animals and who have appropriated the right to speak for the worlds’ four-legged creatures have succeeded in creating an atmosphere so hostile to animal performances. They insist that elephants are suffering by living in captivity and performing for human beings. Some object to circuses, while others oppose all animal captivity, like zoos and reserves – even though life for animals is far from safe in the wild. Poke around the Internet for moral quandaries about using dog leashes and crates, restraints for cats.

I recently had the privilege of visiting a Florida retirement village, not for humans, but for elephants – the same reserve where the elephants above were headed. Circus retirees get to live out their lives in the verdant countryside.

There’s nearly one human in service per elephant. The men and women I meet have devoted their lives to the well-being of animals, mostly pachyderms.


You can’t fake the kind of affection I witnessed, not from the humans nor from the elephants. There’s homegrown food, monster tires to play with, and a round-the-clock vet.

That elephants suffer in circuses is one of those so-called facts everyone seems to know, although I was unable to find proof. Much of the “evidence” is based on a decade-old New York Times article that conjectures that the rage contemporary adolescent male elephants display in the wild by raping rhinos and killing humans is a result of their witnessing the trauma of poachers.

In 2011, a purported yearlong study in the hard-left publication called Mother Jones begins its report with the sad account of a circus elephant who died of unknown causes – 28 years ago! According to the article, numerous court cases have been filed against circus owners, some by whistle-blowing disgruntled former employees. Yet in case after case, after reviewing the evidence, neither the American court judges nor the US Department of Agriculture found proof of animal abuse. A major case was reportedly thrown out of court after a lead witness was found to have been paid for his testimony by animal rights groups.

By 2014, the plaintiffs, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society, were ordered to pay the circus $25 million to reimburse its legal fees.

Ringling Bros. claims that the elephants are pampered performers and that they maintain the highest quality of animal care and husbandry. The animals, they say, live in comfort at home.

On the road they travel in specially-designed private railroad cars. They insist that circus animals are trained with treats, not punishment.

They don’t deny that there are occasional moments of domestic discord among the humans and animals who live together, or that the rules against mistreatment have on occasion been broken.

In the court of public opinion, despite the rulings, enough doubt about the morality of the circuses was generated by the negative PR campaign to close down the elephant acts.

Which makes me identify. So many of the so-called truths about Israel are the result of hostile reporters, NGOs and politicians cherry-picking facts to create an impression of abuse and immorality. The judgments of our court system are dismissed as corrupt; our soldiers are accused of halting pregnant Palestinians at the checkpoints. A stray dolphin becomes an Israeli espionage agent in the imagination of those who hate us. The repetition and accumulation of these tall tales becomes an assumed truth of its own.

At the reserve, I learned that elephants who don’t take to circus performing go straight to the spa. Asian elephants worked with humans in agriculture thousands of years before the advent of zoos.

Asian elephants are indeed endangered – not by zoos and circuses – (the Ringling herd is the largest in the Western hemisphere) but by poaching. And yes, in captivity, some elephants do get sick. There’s research in both directions on whether elephants in captivity or those in the wild live healthier lives.

My first experience in hand-feeding an elephant was giving a loaf of sliced bread to Mysore. Born in India, she arrived in the US in 1947 and became an international star performer. At 3,600 kilograms, the 70-year-old is one of the oldest Asian elephants in the world.

When she’s had enough bread, she turns away and refuses my offerings.

There’s no question about who is in charge and who is bigger.

The 11 elephants received a welcome brunch in Florida this week – food for the humans and tables of fruit as treats for the elephants to make them feel at home.

Is the world better off now? There are also studies that show circuses and zoos heighten children’s awareness of animals and their needs. How many of us children fell in love with those big animals under the big tent? Who will care tomorrow? 

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.

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