Performing Elephants: Dying to Entertain Us

Suing the Circus

The Animal Welfare Institute has joined the Performing Animal Welfare Society, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Fund for Animals in a lawsuit filed on July 11th, against Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The suit alleges that Ringling Brothers violated the Endangered Species Act because of its cruel treatment of endangered Asian elephants.

The Notice of Intent to Sue and the lawsuit detail how Ringling Brothers' trainers and handlers routinely and severely beat elephants to try to make them submissive; the elephants experience pain and distress, they cry out and they bleed because of these beatings. In one particularly horrific incident, an employee testified about the vicious beating of an elephant named Nicole while an executive manager of the circus, Jeffrey Steele, was nearby. When the employee was asked if it was possible that Mr. Steele did not observe the beating, and therefore was unaware of it, the employee testified that while he did not believe that Mr. Steele could have avoided seeing the beating, he certainly could not have missed hearing the repeated "whacking" sound of the ankus (bull hook) on Nicole as well as Nicole's cries of distress. In addition to the beatings, elephants are kept chained virtually the entire time they are not performing.

The lawsuit further describes how baby elephants are separated from their mothers by Ringling Brothers before they are even weaned. The babies, desperate to reunite with their mothers, suffer large lesions on their legs from struggling against the shackles that are used to keep them isolated from their mothers. The baby elephants endured "unnecessary trauma, behavioral stress, and physical harm and discomfort," according to a letter from USDA Under Secretary Michael Dunn.

Crime Subcommittee Holds Hearing

On June 13th, a hearing was held on the Captive Elephant Accident Prevention Act in the US House of Representatives Crime Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee. More than 150 people crowded into the standing room only hearing to see the show. The bill, H.R. 2929, was introduced by Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA). If passed, it will prohibit circuses from using elephants in traveling shows and from permitting the public to ride on the backs of elephants.

Renowned television game show host and friend of animals, Bob Barker, testified in support of the legislation and showed a shocking videotape of performing elephants going on rampages and having to be gunned down in the middle of crowded communities.

Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee Bill Young testified eloquently about the plight of elephants used for rides and traveling circuses. He described an elephant who was repeatedly hit in the eye with the hook of an ankus merely to make him get back in line and a baby elephant who was beaten, shrieking in pain and fear.

Conspicuous by their absence from the witness table of the hearing was Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.



Top picture: The lawsuit against Ringling Brothers alleges that elephants are trained using negative reinforcement (beatings) in violation of the Endangered Species Act.  Note the elephants' chains and the man's "training tools." (Photo Courtesy of The Elephant Alliance)

Middle Picture: A "bull hook"

Bottom picture: Joyce, a pathetic victim of the circus industry, was forced to continue working despite the fact that for years she was dying of Tuberculosis. A report from The Elephant Alliance reveals that a TB quarantine was placed on Ringling Brothers' elephant facilities by the Florida Department of Agriculture last year and that Vance, a male elephant at another Ringling Brothers facility, had a positive culture for TB, but went untreated for months. (Photo Courtesy of The Elephant Alliance)


Archival document; for complete account, please see