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It's Time to End the Use of Elephants in Circuses

By Nicole G. Paquette, Born Free USA

A lifetime of misery is what elephants endure in circuses. They are carted in box cars or trucks from city to city for the majority of the year, forced to perform unnatural tricks under threat of beatings with bullhooks, chained for hours on end, and separated from their families—all for just a few minutes of mindless entertainment.

Standard circus industry practice is to use cruel devices such as bullhooks to poke, prod, strike, shock, and hit animals in order to “train” them to perform on command. When the hooked end is held, the handle can be used as a club, inducing substantial pain when elephants are struck in areas where little tissue separates skin and bone

The practice of chaining is one of the most common methods of confining elephants in circuses and goes hand-in-hand with the use of the bullhook. Chaining severely restricts an elephant’s movements — especially elementary ones such as lying down, walking, or socializing with other elephants. The resultant lack of movement results in neurosis and stereotypic behavior. This behavior, which indicates psychological distress, is not observed in elephants in the wild.

The treatment that these animals endure on a daily basis is simply appalling.

Circuses will tell you performing elephants are helping to conserve the species in the wild and that your dollars matters in their efforts. However, elephants born into the circus are slated to become “replacement” performers for aging and ill elephants. They will never be released back into the wild. In fact, many of them, males in particular, are too unpredictable to perform under the Big Top and will spend the majority of their lives chained away from public scrutiny.

Captive breeding programs do nothing to address the real threats endangered elephants face in the wild, such as poaching, trophy hunting, loss of habitat, and drought. If circuses truly cared about conservation they would spend the money it takes to care for an elephant to support enforcement agencies, educational programs, and habitat preservation efforts in elephants’ native countries.

In addition, elephants in circuses have no educational value and exist solely for entertainment purposes. Watching elephants perform unnatural tricks does not teach our children respect or appreciation for animals, nor does it teach children how elephants behave naturally in the wild.

The circus industry claims that the acts elephants perform in the ring are modeled after what elephants would ordinarily do in the wild. However, when I witnessed elephants in the wild, I saw them in large matriarchal herds, walking long distances, playing in watering holes, taking afternoon naps, bonding with their mothers, and socializing with one another. These wild elephants did not walk in a line holding each other’s tail, stand on pedestals and twirl, sit in rapid succession, play with balls, or stand for hours on concrete immobilized in heavy, metal chains.

Animal circuses teach children that it is acceptable to exploit and mistreat animals for amusement and profit. No research has shown that attending circuses using elephants increases public concern about their status in the wild or what steps are being taken to ensure their survival.

Considering the treatment these animals endure, how can a circus justify that the use of elephants helps conserve endangered species and has educational value? How does the use of bullhooks and chains enhance the species?

The truth is that there is no justifying such barbaric, needless cruelty. The use of elephants in circuses is inhumane and it is time that Americans turn away from outdated circuses to humane, progressive forms of family entertainment—there are plenty of choices. Localities and states must also pass legislation to prohibit these abusive practices. Through such simple steps we can end lifetimes of misery for circus elephants.

Nicole G. Paquette is Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Born Free USA (


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