Recently, Sea World has been receiving a lot of criticism for the treatment of their captive orcas, after the release of the film “Blackfish.” People are calling for either the release or larger enclosures for them, and as I discussed in my last blog, I am all for the large ocean pens. In the midst of what I’m sure Sea World would call chaos, Ringling Brothers just announced that they will be removing elephants from their circuses. This is excellent news, and provides hope not only for Sea World’s orcas, but for other captive animals as well.
Upon hearing the news of Ringling Brothers’ decision to end their long-running elephant acts, I was ecstatic. To hear that such an intelligent animal is now going to be freed from this unnecessary trick performing world was music to my ears. One thing I don’t understand however, is the timeline.
Ringling Brothers said that they are going to phase out the elephant acts and have them eliminated by 2018. Why will this take three years? I understand it will take time to rehome all of the elephants, but can’t the acts stop being performed in the meantime? I think this is something I may want to investigate further.
While it’s hard to imagine a circus without elephants, there are many other aspects of a circus that make it entertaining, many of which don’t involve animals. I’ve been to the circus at least twice that I can remember, and I don’t really remember the elephants. One time I remember them pooping during the act, and everyone in the audience screaming “Ewwww.” The rest of the show I can’t remember.
On a previous trip to the circus I was a lot younger, and can only remember everyone in the Fleet Center having glow sticks and light up toys; nothing about the show stuck with me.
So, in essence, what’s the point of having elephants? The circus is made for children, right? So if children aren’t going to remember anything, why waste the effort of training elephants?
I don’t think Ringling Brothers is going to suffer financially at all from removing elephant acts immediately. If anything, I feel it could boost sales from people knowing that the dark side of the circus would no longer be a part of it. There are many other, non-animal acts in the circus that make it entertaining.
Many people may wonder, why did Ringling Brothers make this decision? What’s so bad about having these animals in the circus? Aren’t they having fun on stage? As with many captive animals, it’s what’s going on behind the scenes that’s the problem.
A few years ago, I watched a documentary called, “An Apology to Elephants.” This was definitely one of the more horrifying documentaries I have seen. The first thing I can remember is a piece of old, black and white footage. The people involved were apparently trying to determine the effects of electric shot. An elephant was chained down, then electrocuted, then fell on its side dead. This footage was taken at a time when people were still convinced animals could not feel pain, and procedures such as vivisection were still being performed.
I assumed the rest of this film would be similar old footage, but I could not have been more wrong. It goes on to show how elephants are still being treated today, knowing now for sure that they feel not only physical pain, but deep emotional pain as well.
For the training process, instead of rewarding the elephants for good behavior, they are punished for bad behavior. They are hit, screamed at, and forced to go where trainers want them to go with bull hooks and prods. Prods are just like cattle prods, you basically push the animal where you want them to go, whereas a bull hook is driven into the elephant’s skin to pull them where you want them to go.
Seeing this abuse was heartbreaking, especially when it is done to such an intelligent animal. The elephants don’t just experience this physical pain, they also experience long lasting emotional pain as a result of this horrible treatment.
The old phrase, “Elephants never forget” is very true. In the wild, they have been filmed passing the bones of old family members that have passed away, and mourning. They move the bones around with their trunks, and linger in the area for quite some time before moving on.
It is intelligence and emotion like this that have helped shape my overall feelings on captivity. When it comes right down to it, my thoughts on whether or not an animal should be kept in captivity boil down to two key factors: The animal’s size (which ties into habitat requirements), and the animal level of intelligence (which indicates how aware the animal will be that it is in captivity, and determine if the animals emotional needs can truly be met in an artificial environment).
Given these requirements I have set for myself, elephants are not meant for captivity, not only in a circus environment, but any sort of captive environment. Elephants migrate thousands of miles to find food and water as the environment changes. While providing them with these necessary things in captivity eliminates their need to migrate, the instinct is still there for them to want to do something, go somewhere. This has been shown to lead to extreme boredom in many captive animals, which is why enrichment is so important.
Enrichment also ties in to the emotional needs of intelligent animals, particularly those that are used to living in social groups. One thing Sea World has been cited for is creating unnatural, non-family groups, which causes tension among the groups. It’s just like reality TV, if you force people together, conflicts are bound to erupt. I will further discuss my opinions on captivity and zoos in a later blog.
The recent news for elephants gives me hope for all animals in captivity. Whether it’s freedom, or better captive conditions, I hope other organizations will step up and realize what they’ve been doing for so long is actually wrong.
Many others online are saying, “Your move SeaWorld”. While they have already laid out a plan for a larger enclosures, maybe pressure from the public will lead SeaWorld to change their plan. Something like this decision by Ringling Brothers could pave the way for other animals, including cetaceans, primates, and more. I can only hope that everyone feels the same why I do, maybe even enough to do something about it.
Nicole is currently employed at a university, caring for lab animals. She has always been an animal lover, and more recently an animal activist.