A happy end to a long, sad story

But why wait until 2018 to retire circus elephants?
But why wait until 2018 to retire circus elephants?
Published Mar. 16, 2015

Those who believe that the arc of human history bends toward progress and enlightenment must be having a hard time finding a scrap of good news in the media these days.

ISIS. Climate change. Disintegrating infrastructure. Gridlock in Washington. We could go on.

But in this dismal news climate, here's an event that ought to give us a little hope. On March 5, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced its plans to retire its troop of 13 performing elephants to its Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida in 2018.

This is a significant change. Elephants have been the iconic, center-ring image of the circus for over a century. They've amazed and delighted millions by parading trunk-to-tail, sitting up on barrels and balancing on their forelegs.

Devoted circus apologists sometimes suggest that elephants take some pleasure or satisfaction in teaming up with humans to entertain and educate us, but this is a highly doubtful notion. And it doesn't take an animal rights activist to suspect that the life of a traveling, performing elephant is depressingly bleak.

Some of the misery has to do with the relationship between trainer and beast. The classic bible of animal training is H. Hediger's The Psychology and Behaviour of Animals in Zoos and Circuses, first published in 1955 and reprinted as late as 1969. Hediger admits that unfamiliar surroundings will "induce serious feelings of insecurity and anxiety in an animal."

But the trainer can never show weakness, he says, especially among the larger animals, which are continually assessing "social rank." Sometimes animals will put up "resistance," which "requires the use of suitable punishment."

The "trainer must impose his will unequivocally." In fact, "circus tricks" depend on "forcing the animal to make passive movements." The "purest form" of this method is used in training elephants. Since human strength is insufficient to force an elephant to sit on a barrel and raise its front legs, pulleys (!) are necessary. Grim.

I suspect that Ringling Brothers would say that these methods belong to a bygone era and that modern performing elephants are given the best of care and treated with respectful consideration. Maybe.

But it's not hard to imagine what life is like, at best, for a performing elephant. In the wild, elephants live in family groups, travel 30 to 40 miles per day, graze on a wild buffet, and give indications of intelligence and some capacity for empathy and communication.

In the circus, elephants are transported from town to town by train and may spend 24 hours staring at the inside of a railcar. By some reports they may be confined for as long as 60 hours.

Between the unloading and reloading they stand shackled, often on hard surfaces, waiting to perform. And what does the inside of a circus tent, filled with a screaming crowd and loud music, sound like to an elephant, whose natural habitat is quieter than anything in the civilized world?

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So, good for Ringling Brothers. But why wait until 2018 to give the elephants a little peace? A lot of misery can be packed into three years. Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the New York Times have called for the immediate retirement of these 13 creatures. So should the rest of us.

And we may have more influence on this than we might think. Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, admits that consumers are experiencing a "mood shift" and that "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."

This is a significant change in thinking that should be applied to Ringling's lions, tigers and horses, as well as to the killer whales and dolphins confined in SeaWorld's aquaria in equally miserable conditions.

We should stay away from these places. In a world of bad news, enlightened reconsideration of how we treat these animals would be good news, indeed.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.