Recently several different animal protection organizations combined their grassroots organizational skills to hold what was called the largest circus protest in history. Hundreds arrived – by carpool, bus and subway – in Los Angeles for the opening night of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Staples Center.

Protesters spoke with prospective circus-goers, many of whom then opted to leave without buying a ticket. Entire families returned their tickets to the box office after paying for them – all because the painted façade of a circus hides an ugly reality, particularly for elephants.

The majority of circus elephants were captured in the wild as babies. Like human mothers, female elephants won’t willingly give up their children. It is widely reported that in 2000, poachers killed 60 free-roaming female elephants so their babies could be taken and sold to the entertainment industry.

Family bonds are intensely strong in elephant families. Eyewitnesses have seen still-nursing baby elephants refuse to abandon their dead mothers, even attempting to suckle from their corpses. When born in captivity, babies are removed from their mothers so they can be more easily adapted to following a human trainer (rather accurately depicted in the Disney cartoon “Dumbo”).

Pat Derby is founder and president of Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a nonprofit organization that specializes in the care of exotic animals formerly used for entertainment such as elephants, big cats and primates. Derby says elephants in particular are highly social animals with emotional and physiological needs that cannot be met in a circus.

“Elephants need space, freedom of choice, a complex social environment and an enriched, diverse habitat to survive in captivity,” said Derby. “The constant confinement on chains, in small spaces, in trucks, trains and other vehicles is very damaging psychologically and physically. Their inability to make simple choices about eating, drinking, dusting, mudding – all essential functions for a healthy elephant – while traveling and performing creates constant stress and abnormal behavior. The lack of complex social activity and habitat combined with other factors leaves the circus elephant with nothing to enrich their lives.”

Ringling’s history of animal care leaves much to be desired. PETA reports that since 1992 at least 26 elephants have died in Ringling’s care — among them four babies. Riccardo was euthanized at 8 months old after falling from a pedestal and fracturing both back legs. Ringling’s negligence in providing veterinary care cost the company a $20,000 settlement when 2-year-old Kenny was found dead in his stall with a bleeding rectum after being forced to perform twice in one day. A 4-year-old named Benjamin drowned in a pond as he tried to escape his trainer in an incident caught on tape.

Big cats, primates, bears and camels are also victims of negligence and mistreatment.

Authorities have criticized or cited Ringling for a long list of violations of the Animal Welfare Act such as causing harm and stress to animals, unsafe handling, poorly maintained enclosures, too-small enclosures, failure to provide veterinary care to ill and injured animals, failure to maintain accurate veterinary records, insufficient exercise, and unsanitary feeding practices.

It’s usually the training methods, however, that make the public recoil in horror. Elephants and other exotic animals don’t innately do tricks like riding bicycles, standing on their heads, balancing on balls, or jumping through rings of fire for human audiences. Whips, restraints, muzzles, electrical prods, pitchforks, blowtorches and other frightening tools must be used to train animals to perform awkward, unnatural acts. Unlike training a dog at home, circus animals aren’t given “positive reinforcement” such as tasty treats. They receive negative reinforcement in the form of fear, dominance and physical abuse.

“Training for performance usually begins at an early age,” said Derby. “The constant abusive, negative training and deprived physical environment reduces the circus elephant to a catatonic zombie with little resemblance to the majestic, intelligent elephants in the wild. They are performing robots with no similarity to wild species, and there is no educational benefit to keeping these animals in such horrible confinement.”

Ringling employees have reported, and undercover video confirmed, that elephants are regularly abused and beaten with bullhooks – a tool much like a fireplace poker – in order to control their movement and force them to perform. An elephant’s skin is fairly thick, but sensitive, and trainers know the critical areas (such as behind the ears) where using the bullhook will be most effective and cause the most pain. Injuries, including cuts, puncture wounds, swelling and abscesses frequently result from this “training.”

Backstage, veterinary technicians and other employees are on hand to do “spot work,” in which they patch up these injuries before showtime. One typical remedy is a gray powder called “wonder dust” that is rubbed into the bloody wounds to conceal injuries from the audience.

Seeing elephants bleeding would no doubt frighten the children and horrify the adults.

Members of the Polito family of Moorpark, Calif., attended the protest in Los Angeles.

“The circus is so child-oriented, my kids felt compelled to be here,” said Colleen Polito, who attended with her son, her daughter and her daughter’s friend. “They want other people their age to know the truth about what these animals suffer in the name of entertainment. The way circus animals are treated is appalling. Elephants are one of the most intelligent and gentle species on the planet. Unfortunately, those traits make them easy prey for greedy humans. The suffering and pain they are put through is incomprehensible to me.”

“Circus animals don't have the ability to just say, ‘I'm out of this,’ but I do,” said Colleen’s 13-year-old daughter Clara, who is a vegan with her own baking company. “This issue is important to me because many circus-goers are ignorant to the fact that they’re paying a company to keep doing what they do: abuse animals, and make them do unnatural things. My goal is to end the use of animals in circuses.”

Linda Hogan, former wife of wrestler Hulk Hogan, made an especially powerful spokesperson against circuses. She says she once witnessed Ringling Bros. abuse animals behind the scenes at Madison Square Garden, where her husband was performing the night before Ringling’s opening day.

“Someone was nice enough to take us and our children backstage to see the animals, the elephants in particular,” said Hogan. “What we saw was animals shackled, less than two feet from where they could lay down, and a baby elephant away from them, in another training quarter, being abused. I vowed at that point that I would never, ever take my children to the circus again.”

“It’s inspiring to see so many people here to speak up, especially Linda Hogan,” said Prabhat Gautam, president of Positive Television, a media production company helping connect celebrities and other notable personalities with compassionate causes. “The modern-day circus is about as real as professional wrestling. A circus is actually even more staged – wrestlers pretend to beat each other up, but circuses actually beat the animals.”

What Hogan saw is not unusual, since elephants in circuses spend most of their lives shackled. Male elephants, considered more unpredictable, are chained all the time out of fear for employee safety. A study by Animal Defenders International (ADI) of a traveling circus observed elephants who spend 58 to 98 percent of their time chained by at least one leg and sometimes both a front and hind leg; elephants are normally chained overnight. Captive elephants are prone to foot and leg problems because of long periods of time kept in shackles, standing on concrete and standing in their own urine and excrement. More captive elephants in the U.S. are euthanized due to foot conditions and arthritis than any other cause.

Adding insult to injury, Ringling Bros. animals endure an especially rigorous travel schedule, mainly by train boxcars exposed to weather extremes – more than 25,000 miles logged during 11 months of the year. Train trips average 26 hours and can be up to 60 to 70 hours long, and animal protection groups say that rather than deal with the mess, elephants are intentionally dehydrated while in transit and food is withheld.

Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., forwarded inquiries about this protest to its public relations agency, which did not reply. In its online factsheet, Feld says it “is committed to the highest standards in the care of all animal performers.” Elsewhere, Feld has said “animal special interest groups” have an “aggressive and extreme agenda.”

Yet the only discernable agenda of the protesters in Los Angeles was concern for animals. In contrast, Feld Entertainment’s agenda is to profit from victimizing animals, like Sea World and other marine parks, rodeos, horse or dog racing, the food industry, the fur trade, and any other animal enterprise. There’s a lot of money to be made in capturing or force-breeding animals, keeping them confined in small boxes, and selling them to a public that is hungry for amusement – or simply hungry, period. It would be impossible to calculate (or frankly, conceive of) the amount of money taken in by the many forms of animal exploitation.

Feld’s real problem with animal activists is that they are able to reach out to people and show them the ugly side to animal entertainment. What seems “aggressive and extreme” are Feld’s training methods, the violent means by which animals are obtained from the wild, the rigorous performance schedule (11 shows in five days during the Los Angeles stay), the constant travel, and the abbreviated lifespans of performing animals.

“We don't want to abolish circuses, we just want them to stop using animals,” said Gautam. “Acrobatic shows and jugglers and trapeze artists are a terrific form of entertainment for kids and adults, and unlike animals, humans are willing performers. In fact, there are many animal-free circuses that tour all over the world, and they are quite amazing.”

With only a few handfuls of performing elephants in the U.S., it’s hard not to believe an end to their suffering is in sight. Animal sanctuaries provide a comfortable “retirement” for performing animals, although they need public support to keep doing their work.

Whether you want to simply help elephants or stop animal exploitation in general, a powerful first step is to research the terrible side effects of using animals for entertainment, avoid supporting these industries with your consumer dollar, and discourage others from attending. Contact sponsors of the circus, as well as the venues, to voice your concern and let them know you will not support them if they continue to feature animal circuses.

Nationally, 26 U.S. cities have passed bans on performing animals and animal circuses within their borders. If one does not exist in your community, think about starting your own campaign. Several countries ban animal circuses outright, most recently Bolivia.

Bans are extremely effective as public opinion shifts – take the “sport” of bullfighting. Bullfighting is a centuries-old tradition in Spain, yet more and more Spaniards say they oppose it on ethical grounds. In July, lawmakers banned bullfighting in the northern region of Catalonia, which includes Spain’s second most populous city, Barcelona. It’s an exciting precedent and shows it is high time that animal abuse go the way of other outdated, exploitative forms of “entertainment” such as public hangings and minstrel shows.

Gary SmithGary Smith is the animal rights blogger for Elephant Journal, a guide to the mindful life including yoga, organics, sustainability, and conscious consumerism. He is co-founder of Evolotus, a PR agency working for a better world. Evolotus specializes in health and wellness, spirituality, animal protection, natural foods, documentary films, non-profits and socially beneficial companies. Gary and his wife adhere to a vegan lifestyle and live with their cat, Chloe, in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

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The circus elephant in the room
Animal rights blogger Gary Smith details the 'training' of circus animals.