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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

8 March 2001 Fact Sheet

Elephants In captivity:
The sad truth behind the glitter and glamour

How does an elephant's life change when it is kidnapped from its natural habitat and then displayed in zoos or used in intricate and disciplined animal acts in a circus?

Are you under the assumption that the elephants enjoy this lifestyle. That they are trained with love and rewards? Had you expected to find their lives sheltered and protected, free from the dangers of the wild?

If so, you need to spend some time learning the brutal facts behind the glitter and glamor of the circus elephant and the tragic, lonely life of the elephants in zoos.

Because of the enormous size and strength of elephants, most trainers rely on chains and fear to make them obey. Some elephants spend almost their whole lives in chains. The well-known Dumbo lived 20 years in "martingales," chains that ran from his tusks to his feet. In the wild, the life expectancy of elephants is the same as ours. In the circus, many elephants die prematurely of disease and the stress of confinement.

What really goes on behind the scenes, let us take a look.


Tools of the Trade

The whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks, and other tools used during circus acts and training sessions are reminders that the animals are being forced to perform.

Chains Elephants are chained by one or both front and hind legs during training sessions, transport, and often between shows. Inadequate exercise and prolonged standing in wet, unsanitary conditions may lead to foot problems such as foot rot, cracked nails, and infected cuticles.

Rope Baby elephants born in breeding compounds are prematurely removed from their mothers for training. During the separation process, calves are kept isolated and tied with ropes at the front leg and back leg. Rope burns may develop as they struggle against the restraints.

Bullhooks The bullhook, or ankus, has a long handle and a sharp metal hook, and it's used to discipline elephants. Although an elephants skin is thick, it is sensitive enough for them to feel the pain of an insect bite. Trainers embed the hook into the soft tissue behind the ears and inside the mouth or tender spots under the chin and around the feet. Click here for more information on the bullhook.

Whips The sting of a whip causes lingering, intense pain.

Electrical shock Like the whip, a jolt of electrical current is painful. Circuses often use electric prods and smaller hand-held shocking devices that are easily concealed.

Sticks, axe handles, baseball bats, metal pipes These weapons are used to hit and beat restrained animals in order to break their spirits and show them "who’s boss."


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