The Truth Behind the Curtain: Banning Performing Circus Elephants


Most people have that one friend that they can go weeks or even months without seeing, and when they are reunited it is as if no amount of time has gone by. Now imagine going twenty two years without seeing that friend. With so much time passed, it is safe to say things would not be the same between you. However, this was not the case for two old friends, Shirley and Jenny, a pair of retired performing Asian elephants. When the two first met, Jenny was young and Shirley took on the role of her mother figure. When they were sadly separated, their strong bond kept their friendship alive. Twenty two years later Shirley retired to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the same place that Jenny now called home. The morning after Shirley’s arrival, the sanctuary’s workers opened the gates between the elephants after realizing that they had bent the enclosure’s steel bars trying to get closer. The two old friends began trumpeting with joy and embracing each other with their trunks.  It was fascinating to the sanctuary’s workers  that years later these two girls remembered the bond that they shared so long ago. From that day on, Jenny and Shirley would live out the rest of their retirement, side-by-side and completely inseparable. When Jenny became ill in 2006, Shirley stood by her side. Carol Buckley, the executive director of the sanctuary, recalled that “the day before she died, Jenny had been down and she wouldn’t get up. Shirley stood by her and insisted that Jenny get up. Jenny just couldn’t get up. Then Jenny stood up but she had to lean on Shirley to keep up” (PBS). When Jenny passed away, Shirley deeply mourned her loss, refusing to eat for two straight days. This is just one story that demonstrates the love and emotion that these animals are capable of.

Another story highlights the bond between an elephant named Tarra and her stray canine friend, Bella. When Bella found her way to The Elephant  Sanctuary, she formed an incredible bond with Tarra, and they spent every waking moment together. When Bella suffered from a spinal cord injury and was confined to the sanctuary office, Tarra sat outside the window calling for her friend. Years later tragedy struck and Bella was killed by coyotes. When Tarra found her friend, she picked her up with her trunk and carried her back to the barn where they had spent their days together. There, Tarra mourned her friend, calling out for her. Some  believe that humans are only capable of this level of emotion and compassion, but it is clear that elephants share this profound capability with us.

Resistant Audience

This then begs the question of how people find it acceptable to keep animals of such high cognition and emotion in an environment like a circus. The most prominent problem is that eliminating elephants from performing would jeopardize most (if not all) of the business that circuses bring in from displaying live animals. The success of these shows directly affects the many people who rely on their jobs in the circus for their livelihood. Additionally, aside from the fact that circuses provide countless jobs and revenue, they are also seen as a cultural tradition worldwide. The general public loves going to the circus with their families and watching these animals perform. Therefore, many people believe that since circuses provide jobs and support the economy, they should stay.


However, it is important to note that most circuses are guilty of violating the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The AWA requires that “minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public” (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2013). Violations of the AWA result in poor health conditions for the elephants and usually lead to premature death. Furthermore, it can be argued that it is unethical to subject a species of such high intelligence to exploitation for profit and entertainment. There are alternative ways to make money using animals without turning them into a commodity. Alternatives include possibilities such as ecotourism or developing elephant sanctuaries that specialize in educational outreach programs. It is also important to remember that these are large wild animals and pose a physical danger to both circus employees and the public. Elephants are also known to carry tuberculosis, which poses a health risk to all that come into contact with them, especially young children. It is necessary to be aware of the danger that circuses are putting their employees, the public, and of course, the elephants in when they use these animals  for entertainment purposes.

Main Claim 1

Elephants are highly social mammals, with great emotional and intellectual intelligence.  Elephants have been shown to have a sense of self and are able to pass tests that show self awareness such as the Mirror Self-Recognition (MSR) test (Bradshaw, 2009, p. 2). In the wild elephants live in matriarchal herds and are capable of elaborate communication and cooperation. According to G. A. Bradshaw, elephants are “[m]uch like avid fans of soap operas… elephants, and in particular the matriarch, must be able to recall myriad relational connections and intrigues that make up the fabric of everyday social life upon which survival depends” (Bradshaw, 2009, p. 9). Bradshaw goes on to argue that elephants are capable of a range of emotions just as humans are, and that each elephant has its own distinctive personality.

The treatment of elephants in circuses is detrimental to their mental health and well-being. Elephants used for circus performances are torn from their mothers and family groups, and are often held in isolation or with incompatible individuals (much like humans, elephants prefer the company of certain individuals of their species and dislike others). According to former elephant trainer Sam Haddock in an interview with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), elephant calves are forcefully separated from their mothers at 18 to 24 months of age to begin circus training. The separation is carried out to the screams of the mother and the cries of the calf, and often times the calves will continue to call out for their mothers and strain against their restraints for the next few weeks (Haddock, Declaration, 2009).

Circuses use force and punishment to train the elephants to perform the desired tricks.  The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) states that punishment should not be used to achieve a behavior in an animal, as there is a greater potential for adverse effects than for the desired behavior. Undesirable effects include “inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals” (AVSAB Position Statement, 2007). Beating circus elephants to achieve a desired behavior does not create a positive relationship between elephant and trainer, and often causes confusion in the animal leading to future aggression. Former trainer Sam Haddock says, “During the course of my career, I’ve seen elephants being beaten who have no idea why they are being beaten or what is expected of them. They will start randomly lifting one leg, then another and another, lifting their trunk, hoping some trick will satisfy the trainer and make the beating stop” (Haddock, Declaration, 2009). Furthermore, elephants have a strong social memory, and are capable of remembering abuse and retaliating when they see the chance (Bradshaw, 2009, p. 14). Bradshaw recounts one instance of this ‘retaliatory cunning’ in her book The Existential Elephant. She tells of the elephant Black Diamond, who acted out upon seeing a former abusive trainer again for the first time in years. Black Diamond struck out at the trainer goring and killing a spectator in the process, resulting in the order for his execution (Bradshaw, 2009, p. 15).

Bradshaw argues that these cruel training methods can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in circus elephants in her paper titled Post Traumatic Stress and Elephants in Captivity. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a severe anxiety response to a past life threatening or traumatic event (Mayo Clinic, 2014). According to Bradshaw, captivity creates the opportunity for PTSD as the elephant does not have the option of escape from trauma that it may have had in the wild (Bradshaw). Separation from their mothers, isolation, physical pain caused by cruel treatment, restricted movement, and food deprivation are all common causes for PTSD in circus elephants (Bradshaw). Post traumatic stress coupled with isolation, frustration, and boredom can lead to repetitive, meaningless behaviors in circus elephants. These behaviors are called stereotypic behaviors, and have never been seen in wild elephants (Mason and Veasey, 2010, pp. 256-273). Stereotypic behaviors in elephants typically include pacing and foot swinging, head bobbing, or swaying (Bradshaw).

Main Claim 2

Keeping elephants in circuses is not only detrimental to their mental health and well-being, but to their physical health as well. In the wild elephants often travel up to twenty miles a day (Bradshaw, 2009, p. 4). Instead, circus elephants  are confined in trailers for travel for an average of 11 months out of the year and are often chained or kept in small pens when not performing (Born Free USA, 2004). Ringling Brothers Circus reports that their elephants are chained for an average of 26 consecutive hours, sometimes up to 60 or even 100 hours (PETA, Ringling Bros. Factsheet). USDA reports show that travelling conditions often do not meet the basic needs of food, water, shelter, and space specified by the Animal Welfare Act. Many circuses have been cited under this act for improper and dangerous traveling conditions that can injure the elephants and lead to infection, such as splintering wood and sharp metal (Born Free USA, 2004). Often elephants are unattended during travel, left to stand in their own waste. In 2010, an elephant from the Carson & Barnes circus escaped during travel. As she bolted, she slipped in the mud and fell down a steep hill, injuring her shoulder and breaking part of her toenail (PETA, Elephant Incidences Factsheet).

While some can argue that circuses are regulated by the USDA, it is difficult for the less than 1000 workers to monitor the more than 12000 circus facilities in the United States. When you do the math that means only 12 circuses per worker, but coupled with the other responsibilities of the workers, some facilities slip through the cracks. In 2011, Feld Entertainment (The parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) was ordered to pay $270,000 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. This is the largest civil penalty ordered by the USDA for failure to comply with humane treatment laws. The penalty was brought on by recorded video evidence accrued over a span of four years by PETA of trainers repeatedly beating elephants on multiple occasions (PETA, Ringling Bros. Factsheet). The standard method applied by circuses such as Ringling Bros. of breaking in a baby elephant involves separating baby from mother by cinching ropes around its legs and dragging it away, despite the screams of the mother. The baby is then kept tied up for ten days, led around by an anchor elephant and six to seven people to begin circus training. After about six months, the ropes are replaced by chains and the elephant begins ring training, where trainers will use bullhooks and cattle prods to obtain the desired tricks and behavior from the animals. Former Ringling Bros. elephant trainer Sam Haddock told PETA in a statement that, “Based on my experience, these violent training methods are the only way an elephant can be trained to perform certain tricks required for a circus act. It’s bunk when the circus says that it’s showcasing an elephant’s natural behaviors” (Haddock, Declaration, 2009). The regulations set by the USDA and the Animal Welfare act only cover basic needs for the animals such as food, water, and shelter. There are not enough regulations to protect these sentient creatures from the emotional and physical damage done to them daily.

Haddock continues with his description of torturous training methods by describing the bullhook, the main pain-inflicting device used in training the elephants. Bullhooks, cattle prods, ropes, and chains are widely used in circus elephant training (PETA, Ringling Bros. Factsheet). “The bullhook is designed for one purpose, and one purpose only, to inflict pain and punishment. I should know, I used to make them.” Haddock admitted in his declaration (Haddock, Declaration, 2009). The training of the circus elephants leaves lasting scars on the animals, both physical but mental as well. Often times the injuries sustained during training or by accident go untreated, despite the Animal Welfare Act explicitly requiring adequate veterinary care for performing animals. Ringling Bros. Circus alone has been cited dozens of times by the AWA for failure to provide veterinary care for elephants, including elephants with stiff or swelling legs and elephants with abrasions (PETA, Circuses).

The close quarters and unsanitary living conditions of the circus can create an environment for the spread of disease. This spread of disease occurs not only from elephant to elephant, but from elephant to human as well. One common disease found in circus elephants that is transmissible to humans is Tuberculosis (PETA, Contagious Tuberculosis). Circus trainers have been infected in the past as they often work closely with the sick animals. Sam Haddock, quoted above, is one of the many trainers that have been infected by this disease. Tuberculosis is caused by a bacteria infecting the lungs, causing congestion, fatigue, and loss of appetite (CDC, 2012). Tuberculosis has not been found in wild elephant populations, meaning that it is considered an inverse zoonotic and that the disease was originally passed from a human to a captive elephant (CDC, 2010). Elephant handlers and trainers are more likely to contract tuberculosis from a sick elephant, but the general public may also contract the disease from a sick elephant during a circus performance or elephant rides (CDC, 2010).



Behavioral and health analysis of circus elephants has shown the negative effects of how poor treatment and care impact an animal’s overall welfare. Circus elephants are subjected to living a life comprised of confinement, harsh training methods, and unnatural environments, all contributing to their mental and physical demise. Therefore, we propose a bill making it illegal to use elephants for entertainment purposes in the United States. It is our intention to use California Assemblymember Richard Bloom’s AB 2140 bill (The Orca Welfare and Health Act) as a strict template for circus elephant legislation. The intended bill would enforce the following policies:

It would be unlawful to hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred [elephant] for performance or entertainment purposes. [Additionally, current performing elephants would] be rehabilitated and returned to the wild where possible. If it is not possible to return these [elephants] to the wild, as determined by the best available science, then these [elephants would] be transferred to [approved wildlife sanctuaries or zoos that are open to the public for display]. (Bloom, March 28, 2014)

The ban would require enforcement as well. Violation of this proposed bill would result in significant fines and/or imprisonment. While this bill would prohibit these animals from performing in circuses, it would allow for and encourage public visitation and education. Education has the potential to inspire awareness, ultimately leading to conservation activism for a species that has been on the World Wildlife Fund’s endangered list for far too many years.

Furthermore, to encourage this campaign, we would implement approaches that have been used successfully in other countries worldwide. After a long-fought campaign the United Kingdom’s government finally agreed to ban wild animals from performing in circuses before the end of 2015. This campaign’s success began with much uncertainty however. While the government initially proposed to introduce higher welfare standards through licensing, this proposal was rejected. Non-governmental organizations rejected this move as they found that “there were no standards that could be implemented which would effectively protect the welfare of the animals involved” (L. Tyson, personal communication, March 31, 2014). Finally, through decades of dedication and activism we are finally seeing a more promising movement. When asked about the newfound success in the UK, Liz Tyson, Director of The Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS), noted the importance of peaceful protest. This form of campaigning has proven to be so effective because of the direct impact that it has on audience members (Personal communication, March 31, 2014). Ms. Tyson discussed another effective strategy executed by CAPS. The organization requested bans that prohibited the use of council-owned land for circuses that used performing animals. Consequently, circuses regularly held on park and recreational grounds were forced to move to private lands. This increased costs and reduced public access, presenting a challenge to the traveling circus industry (Personal communication, March 31, 2014). Applying the strategies used in the United Kingdom would be beneficial to future campaigns in the United States as we continue the movement to ban performing elephants.



While the United States government resisted lobbying for a ban of performing elephants in the past, support continues to grow. Through careful veterinary care and observation, it is evident that performing circus elephants suffer the consequences of our own entertainment. From mental to physical abuse, these animals succumb to a life of mistreatment and exploitation- one that no being should be forced to live. The revered Mohandas Gandhi, famous for his nonviolent philosophies, once stated that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. As Americans, we are  continuously reminded that the United States is one of the greatest and most progressive nations in the world. However, it appears that other nations are pulling ahead while we are still questioning our own moral beliefs. As a “progressive nation”, it appears that we have some catching up to do. Nevertheless, there is still hope for these gentle giants. Countless organizations such as the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), Born Free USA, Last Chance for Animals, In Defense of Animals (IDA), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have dedicated their resources and funding towards providing a better life for rescued elephants. However, they cannot make this change alone. With the support and perseverance of the educated public, “there is no reason to believe that an end to the use of animals in circuses is not possible” (L. Tyson, personal communication, March 31, 2014).