In the not-too-distant past, some people genuinely believed that African men could not feel pain and that African women felt no maternal connection. It was legal to brand men as property and forcibly remove the children of slaves and send them off to a life of servitude, never to see their family again.
We recoil from and denounce our ancestors’ support of this barbaric system. Yet for elephants used in circuses, who are beaten into submission and live in chains, the slave trade is still painfully real.
Elephants in circuses are held captive and spend their lives deprived of everything that gives their lives meaning: freedom to move around; freedom of choice; independence and autonomy. Families are torn apart. Elephants live in fear of being hurt and give up all hope of relief.
As actor and author Robbyne Kaamil points out in a hard-hitting PETA television ad airing in Norfolk, “My great-great-grandmother was a slave on a North Carolina plantation. Slavery was a horrible, ugly, and brutal system. … Unfortunately, slavery is still a reality for some.”
Recently, an animal control officer reported seeing an elephant handler working with UniverSoul Circus, which is now performing in Norfolk, insert a bullhook into an elephant’s sensitive mouth during a performance in Atlanta. Other witnesses reported that the incident began when an elephant named Bo missed a stunt in his routine and then appeared terrified to go backstage. Although later acquitted, a circus representative and an elephant handler were both charged with cruelty to animals.
Elephant handlers with UniverSoul use bullhooks—weapons that resemble a fireplace poker with a sharp steel hook on one end—to force elephants to perform confusing and unnatural tricks under fear of punishment. Many cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland, Miami Beach and Richmond, Virginia, have passed bans that prohibit the use of bullhooks because of the pain they inflict on elephants.
Circus Elephants: flickr: Laura Bittner
Just like the slave masters of old, circuses shamelessly defend the use of these tools of torture. Indeed, no elephant would engage in grotesquely atypical acts like headstands on command without the constant threat of punishment. Circuses get away with routine abuse because no government authority monitors training sessions and the abuse typically takes place behind closed doors.
There is nothing more important to an elephant than family. Births are joyous events, and deaths of loved ones are mourned. Youngsters are nurtured in close-knit family units in which aunts babysit and grandmothers teach life skills, such as using sticks to swat away flies and applying leaves and mud to prevent sunburn. Elephants have the largest brains of any mammal on Earth, and they can think, plan and remember. And it’s true that they never forget, because their memories are extraordinary.
image | PETA
In a circus, by contrast, a baby elephant’s curious and energetic childhood is cut tragically short. The tender caresses of a mother’s trunk are replaced with ropes, bullhooks and electric prods during violent training sessions, as shown in graphic images of baby elephants being trained at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ breeding compound. Elephants in circuses are conditioned from infancy to obey commands or face the painful consequences. These dejected souls go through their days with no relief, no hope and no joy.
Ringling recently announced that it will eliminate elephant acts by 2018. It’s inevitable that all circuses will eventually follow suit. But in the meantime, people who care about animals and don’t want them to be hurt should shun the circus. As Robbyne says, “When you buy a ticket you are an active participant in this modern-day slave trade. … [L]et us all stand up and fight for the freedom of animals in captivity. Let’s end slavery everywhere, anywhere, in all its forms, for all living beings.”