Chris O'Meara / AP

Let clowns be clowns and elephants be elephants

Ringling Bros. finally bows to public distaste for its exploitation of highly intelligent, social animals

March 11, 2015 2:00AM ET

On March 5, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced that it will phase out the use of elephants in its circus shows by 2018. “There has been a mood shift among our consumers,” said Alana Feld, the company’s vice president of entertainment.

After more than 125 years using elephants and decades of defending its elephant shows against growing criticism, the most popular circus has finally recognized that public sentiment has swung against it. Satisfying its customers is, of course, what all businesses do, and the circus has acknowledged that it is getting harder and more expensive to fight various laws banning the use of exotic animals in towns across the U.S. How did this mood shift happen? Why have people changed their views about elephants used for entertainment?

Part of the credit for changing attitudes is due to the tireless animal activists who appear regularly, rain or shine, to protest when the circus comes to town. They hand out flyers and carry placards with information about the tragic conditions that the elephants have to endure while traveling to entertain audiences.

The largest land animals in existence, adult African elephants weigh 3 to 7 tons and stand 7 to 13 feet high. Because of their enormous size, they are difficult to move at will. Elephants used in circuses are almost constantly chained by both a front and a back leg to prevent escape, and these heavy chains can damage the elephants’ legs. That, combined with their inability to get the daily exercise they need, cause many captive elephants to develop debilitating arthritic conditions and other painful foot and leg ailments.

Training circus elephants to perform unnatural feats requires aversive or painful stimuli, including electric shock, whipping and physical force. The bullhook, or ankus, is one of the more extreme devices for getting elephants to submit. Trainers embed the hook in the soft tissue behind or inside the ears, inside the mouth and in tender areas around the feet. The hooks are intended to cause sharp and intense pain so the massive animals will comply with the trainers’ commands even after the hooks are removed.

Part of the mood shift, then, is a result of consumers’ unwillingness to support the cruelty involved in using elephants for entertainment purposes. Ending its elephant acts now rather than waiting three years would respect the mood of its consumers and respect the elephants.

There is also a growing aversion to the indignity of displaying these magnificent, endangered creatures in circus spectacles. As journalist Andrew Revkin wrote about the Ringling Bros. decision in The New York Times, “It’s a shame this took so long, but it’s a creditable step toward treating animals with respect and dignity.” I admit it is unusual to attribute dignity to animals, since it is a moral term usually thought to be distinctly human. But it is in the context of circus entertainment that questions of animal dignity violations are most poignant. 

Studies suggest that when we see animals in advertisements or movies running around being ridiculous, we come to think that the animals are not endangered in the wild.

Beyond the physical and emotional harms these animals suffer, portraying magnificent beings as creatures to be laughed at is disrespectful. In circus shows elephants and other animals are forced to perform unnatural, often silly behaviors such as handstands and balancing on tubs while wearing brightly colored costumes. While I have no idea whether the animals actually care about looking silly, they don’t have a choice in the matter, and circusgoers now see this spectacle as coercive and undignified. This too has contributed to the shifting mood.

The contexts in which particular animals are portrayed have an impact on public attitudes about that species. Studies have suggested (PDF) that when we see animals such as chimpanzees in advertisements or movies running around being ridiculous, we come to think that the animals are not endangered in the wild. Not accurately perceiving another creature reflects badly on our knowledge of them and hinders our ability to empathize well.

In their announcement to phase out elephants from live entertainment, Ringling Bros. has promised to keep the elephants in captivity at its 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, where there are already over 40 elephants. While this is a huge improvement in living conditions, there is still controversy over keeping elephants in any form of captivity.

As more is learned about these highly intelligent, sensitive individuals, which live for 60 or more years, worries are growing about captive treatment in zoos and in conservation centers. Because elephants are highly social and in the wild spend years in maternal family units, where they develop lifelong bonds, and because they have famously strong memories, disruptions in their social group, such as when family members are moved between conservation centers and zoos, traumatizes elephants.

Experts have argued that it is very difficult to allow elephants to express normal wild behaviors necessary for their well-being in captivity. Yet as their natural habitats are dwindling, they can’t be returned. Elephant Voices has developed overarching principles for providing sanctuary for elephants, drawing on its decades-long studies of wild elephants as well as the success of two U.S. elephant sanctuaries: the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and PAWS in California. While it is good news that the Ringling Bros. elephants will be phased out of shows, I would like to see the Center for Elephant Conservation adopt the principles proposed by sanctuary experts.

Moods change, and the public attention span is short. I fervently hope this current shift in mood about elephants deepens rather than diminishes. For many animal advocates, the Ringling Bros. announcement represents a victory, and it is. But we mustn’t forget the wild elephants that need our empathetic attention as their numbers dwindle because of poaching for ivory. We mustn’t forget the other performing elephants either. And the Ringling Bros. elephants that will soon have their lives improved because of consumers’ shifting moods need to be remembered beyond the circus. After suffering so long, they deserve the very best captive care found in sanctuaries.

Lori Gruen is professor and chair of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. She is the author of the new book "Entangled Empathy:  An Alternative Ethic for our Relationships with Animals."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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