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The circus rolls into town bringing with it the thrill of three rings. Kids bounce in their seats sticky with cotton candy and anticipation, anxiously awaiting the fanfare.

But at what cost?

Elephants performing in circuses (for our mere hour of entertainment) have gone through years of abuse, punishment, solitary confinement, loneliness and fear.

The “tricks” these magnificent beasts perform are a result of the cruel, inhumane treatment they’ve received since the time of their abduction in the wild throughout their horrific journey as part of the circus trade.

This has been going on for over 4,000 years and now it is time to take a stand. We need to stop the solitude and slavery of captive elephants everywhere, and stop patronizing circuses that include elephants in their shows. Why?

One Green Planet gives us a glimpse into the cruelty behind the three-ring shows and some awful truths about how circus elephants (and other large animals) are “trained” to perform their stunts.


Circus Truth – The Brutal Capture and “Training”

According to the experts at ElephantVoices, elephants are extremely social and live among their family members throughout their lifetime. They build lasting relationships and mothers are very protective.

To gather elephants for the circus, baby elephants are traumatically and viciously ripped away from their mothers’ sides by the use of tranquilizer darts. They are transported to a holding facility where they begin the long painful process of being “broken.” This involves the withholding of food and physical interaction (solitary confinement). When a “trainer” finally does arrive, it is to beat, prod and chain the frightened animal into a “stretched out” position. The baby is then continuously “disciplined” for any action that doesn’t compile with the captors wishes (a.k.a circus tricks). According to Elephant Voices,

Elephants by nature are curious animals, highly intelligent and have the capability to remember experiences for many years to come.

In order for a human to gain control over an animal of this size and magnitude, bullhooks, clubs and electric prods are used to beat it into submission.

When “trainers” prod or wave the bull hook at the elephant it’s an ever-present threat and reminder that this instrument is there to inflict pain.


Circus Truth – Chaining is Abuse

In their natural habitat, elephants will spend 20 out of 24 hours on the move in search of food and socialization. That makes it all the more horrifying that, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) , captive circus elephants can spend up to 100 hours straight chained in boxcars, moving from venue-to-venue.

To chain an elephant is to take away its right to exercise, explore, interact and engage in stimulating and social behaviours. Chaining is imprisonment – chaining is ABUSE!


Circus Truth – Unhappy Elephants Rebel

After years of abuse, confinement and being forced to perform in noisy venues, and from the frustration and continuous fear they experience on a daily basis, some elephants are so stressed they snap. Once an eleven thousand pound animal decides that enough is enough, no trainer can stop it. This has resulted in death or injury to the handler, to members of the public and to the distraught elephant. According to In Defense of Animals (IDA) , the examples below are only a couple of the many incidents reported of circus elephants revolting against the cruelty and unfairness of their circumstances.

circus-elephants-elephant-working-in-circusIn 2014, at the Moolah Shrine Circus show in Missouri, three elephants were spooked by circus-goers and broke free of their enclosure. They ran amok for 45 minutes in the parking lot, dinging cars, before a handler could regain control of the beasts.

In another incident in 2010, at the Cole Bros. Circus in Virginia, an elephant named Viola tried to escape her torture and bolted towards a crowd of people, sending many of them fleeing for safety. She was recaptured when she fell into a ditch.

As a result, the Cole Bros. circus later were charged for blatantly disregarding the minimum requirements of care for their animals; in other words they failed to provide them veterinary care, proper nutrition and humane training methods. One of their elephants was found to be seriously underweight. Their handlers were not properly trained to handle elephants, and were unnecessarily cruel. They often left elephants unattended, or in the care of only one handler, who was not capable of controlling the elephants should they decide to bolt. In an article about Cole Bros. by arff (animal rights foundation of Florida), the writer tells about video footage from 2015, exposing the methods of one of their elephant trainers, Mr. Frisco:

“Mr. Frisco is infamous for undercover video footage that captured him beating elephants with bullhooks and shocking them with electric prods. In the video, Frisco is heard instructing other elephant trainers to, ‘Hurt ‘em! Make ‘em scream! … Sink that hook into ‘em … When you hear that screaming, then you know you got their attention!’ The disturbing video is widely available online.”

Thankfully, now, after 25 years of protests by activists, and numerous citations and fines, Cole Bros. has closed its doors for good.


We Can Make a Difference!

To steal a baby animal from its mother, then to give it a life of abuse for our own profit or entertainment, not only damages the mother and baby, it damages the integrity of our society. If we don’t stand up for the rights of these intelligent and caring creatures, who will? Isn’t 4,000 years enough time for any species to suffer at the hands of cruel profiteers?

There are many animal activists groups, such as PAWS, PETA, and LCA, that are raising awareness and money to stop these inhumane practices from continuing. Celebrities are also lending their voices to educate their fans about the plight of circus elephants, according to One Green Planet, and will continue to keep pressure on individual circuses until they comply with animal rights groups.

If you want to join the millions of folks that have already taken a stand, you can do your part by boycotting circuses that use large animals in their shows. Or you can help spread the word by signing petitions. If you are able, you can make donations to support organizations that fight to end the animals’ plight. For instance, PAWS offers a symbolic animal adoption, where you get photos and information about a specific animal at their shelter, a regular newsletter, and get invitations to events.

Together we can make a difference in the lives of the animals currently enslaved, by forcing the circus to relinquish them to reputable and well-funded sanctuaries and preserves. By refusing to support or sanction animal exploitation by the circus, we can put a stop to more baby elephants being ripped away from their mothers and their natural habitat in the future.

Circus Elephants - African Elephant Swimming underwater
Giving Elephants a Second Chance : Circus Elephant Sanctuaries

“The Greatest Show on Earth” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have given in to the pressures of activists, and have taken their Asian elephants out of their shows. The elephants have been placed in their own sanctuary, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation. Located on 200 acres in Central Florida (between Tampa and Orlando) this sanctuary is meeting the needs of their retired circus performers in a big way. The elephants are given the freedom to roam, and are also provided with shelter from the sun, constant water supply and medical treatment when needed. You can check out their facilities here.

Performing Animals Welfare (PAWS) has also been working since 1984 to provide a safe haven for all circus animals. They assist with investigations of abused and neglected circus animals, and provide for those that are relinquished. The freed animals are sent to an over 2,300 acre retreat, where they can live out their natural lives as they should, with freedom to roam and the opportunity to forage, and most importantly, away from the stresses and abuses of a circus life. Although, we tend to paint all “trainers” with the same cruelty brush, there are those who have developed a genuine bond with their elephants. Check out this heart-wrenching reunion of two circus elephants reunited at a sanctuary, Shirley’s reunion, and the trainer that bid a tearful goodbye to his giant friend.

Now’s the time folks! No longer should we glamorize the unnatural tricks and stunts animals are forced to do in a circus. Instead, let’s teach our kids how animals truly act in the wild, happy and free!

Don’t our kids deserve this? Don’t the elephants?circus-elephants-elephants-sunset


Editor’s Note:

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit South Africa and visit these magnificent animals in their natural habitat at Pilanesberg National Park, just a few hours drive from Pretoria. It was a remarkable and moving experience. Watching these elephants play, communicate and care for each other was mesmerizing and eye-opening as they showed deep emotion and intelligence towards each other and to us, their audience. We humans are one small yet powerful link in the chain of life and we have a tremendous responsibility to care for our impact on the animal world. Generations to come will judge us on how we care for and save these incredible creatures.  – Roohi.


  1. Elephant Voices: https://www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-sense-a-sociality-4/elephants-are-socially-complex.html
  1. One Green Planet; http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/cruel-methods-used-to-train-animals/
  1. YouTube Breaking of a Baby Elephant; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDMyEHY6ELs
  1. PETA: http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/cruel-methods-used-to-train-animals/
  1. FOX 31 News; http://kdvr.com/2014/03/22/elephants-escape-from-shrine-circus-in-mo-damage-cars/
  1. Animal Rights Foundation of Florida; http://arff.org/colebros
  1. In Defense of Animals: http://www.idausa.org/elephant-escape-from-circus-spurs-federal-complaint/
  1. One Green Planet Celebrities; http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/celebrities-speaking-up-for-elephants/
  1. Ringling Bros. Elephant Sanctuary; https://www.ringlingelephantcenter.com/
  1. Ringling Bros. Facilities; https://www.ringlingelephantcenter.com/about-cec/factsandfigures/
  1. PAWS; http://www.pawsweb.org/
  1. Shirley’s Reunion: http://www.pawsweb.org/

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