In 2009, PETA went undercover at "the saddest show on Earth"—Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—and captured Ringling workers on video as they beat and whipped elephants dozens of times in venues across the country.
The 11 elephants used in the show—most of whom were captured in the wilds of Asia as early as 1957 and some of whom have spent more than 40 years with the circus—suffer month after month at the hands of Ringling and its crew. PETA documented workers as they struck elephants and tigers on the head, face, ears, trunk, legs, and other parts of their bodies with bullhooks and other abusive handling tools. The unit's animal superintendant and head elephant trainer were among those who used bullhooks—sharp, fireplace pokerlike devices—to hook and yank elephants by their sensitive skin, as can be seen in our undercover video.
The abuse extended from Birmingham, Alabama, to Providence, Rhode Island―Ringling's venues changed, but the beatings did not.
One of the animals Ringing hauls across the country and forces to perform is Tonka, a 25-year-old elephant whom Ringling has used since 1989. From a very young age, she has known only beatings with bullhooks and whips and confinement to cramped spaces, with shackles around her legs.
During our investigation, Tonka was repeatedly captured on video engaging in "stereotypic" behaviors, recognized as a sign of severe psychological distress—including swaying from side to side while simultaneously bobbing her head and swinging her right foot. Despite her condition, Tonka was forced to perform for crowds night after night.
PETA's undercover footage of this suffering is only the latest chapter in Ringling's long history of abusing animals. PETA has obtained other videos of Ringling workers as they beat animals, and former Ringling employees have even spoken out against the circus's cruel practices. A verdict is expected as early as summer 2009 in a lawsuit filed against Ringling, alleging that the circus's use of steel-barbed bullhooks, electric prods, and shackles on the elephants it forces to perform violates federal law.
PETA has filed a formal complaint with the USDA, but officials also need to hear from you. Write to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack and demand that the agency seize the elephants whom Ringling hauls around the country in filthy boxcars and forces to perform under the constant threat of punishment. If officials act now, Tonka and her peers might be spared future beatings. These elephants should be sent to a sanctuary, where they would be able to roam across hundreds of acres of natural habitat, play in ponds, and socialize with their longtime friends—all of which elephants are deprived of in circuses.
And please remember, if you attend a Ringling circus―or any circuses that use animals―you are supporting this suffering. Please, stay away from circuses that use animals.