Animal Writes
14 May 2000 Issue
Open Letter to Supervisors

May 1, 2000

Board of Supervisors

County of Riverside

Riverside, CA

RE: Ordinance #804

Dear Board members:

I support Ordinance #804 that prohibits the display of elephants for public entertainment or amusement. You are commended for your insight into the problems caused by these animals and their exhibitors.

I was a Veterinary Medical Officer for USDA for 6 years. I was in charge of the federal disease control programs and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act in Vermont. I often inspected circuses. Circus animals are poorly inspected under the USDA animal Welfare Act for several reasons. When a problem with a circus is found, paperwork must be generated and a compliance officer needs to visit the circus. Often by the time this is completed, the exhibitor is in another state and in another USDA veterinarian's jurisdiction. If that veterinarian happens to inspect that circus, the procedure is repeated and the exhibitor moves on without the problem being solved.

Veterinarians working for USDA do not receive training in diseases that affect animals performing in circuses and exhibitions. They do not know how to diagnose diseases and do not know if the elephant or any other circus animal has a disease that infects humans. USDA veterinarians do not know how to restrain elephants or other circus animals and, furthermore, do not have the drugs necessary to do proper restraint. Proper restraint is necessary to take blood samples or tissue samples to send to a diagnostic laboratory. So the USDA veterinarians do not do diagnostic workups on circus animals. USDA veterinarians are more concerned with housing and husbandry than diseases.

Furthermore, USDA veterinarians must work with state agricultural officials who have the ultimate control over what the USDA veterinarian does or does not do. Many state agricultural officials know less than the USDA veterinarian about circus animal diseases. Often state political interests interfere with the USDA veterinarian's conducting a proper inspection. Unfortunately, USDA veterinarians do not work with the state department of health officials. These officials have a greater knowledge of zoonoses than agricultural officials do but they seldom learn of a problem with a circus animal. They are "out of the loop".

There is no amount of inspection or inspectors that can prevent an elephant from rampaging or a tiger from attacking. No one knows when the animal is about to become violent. No one knows what causes the crazed behavior. One can speculate with some grounds that the animal is sick or stressed beyond its endurance. These are wild animals in a very abnormal environment. Exercise is very limited and housing is cramped and confining. Wild animals are used to wide open spaces and their territory is large. Elephants have been known to walk 20 miles or more in a day. The food they are given is not what they would eat in the wild.

Because they are wild and dangerous, they cannot receive appropriate preventative or curative veterinary care. Neither a large animal practitioner nor a small animal veterinarian is equipped to handle elephants or big cats. These veterinarians are not trained to make diagnoses on exotic, wild animals. So circus animals are often not treated when they need care. Certainly circus personnel are not trained to make a diagnosis and they do not have access to lab facilities if they did try to find out what was wrong with an animal.

Therefore, USDA compliance is at best hopelessly ineffective. You should not rely on USDA inspections to provide you with an answer to the problem of circus animal care. You need to adopt your own rules so that you are in control.

The issue of zoonoses needs to be addressed. Tuberculosis is considered an emerging disease transmittable to humans. Elephants carry both human and bovine tuberculosis. Both infect humans. According to recent research, many handlers test positive for TB. (See the accompanying research material by Michalak et al on M. tuberculosis Infection as a Zoonotic Disease) TB is becoming more resistant to treatment in humans. TB is spread by exhaled air, oral secretions, feces, urine and vaginal and uterine discharges. Certainly the public would be exposed to these materials during rides or when they are up close to elephants or when walking near elephants' manure.

To protect the public, anyone bringing exotic animals in close proximity or in contact with the public should be required to submit current TB health records for the animals. All employees/handlers should be tested and present up to date records of these tests when exposing circus animals to the public. The treatment for TB is not without risk and the drugs must be given for at least 6 months. The County needs to address the liability issue here. Most traveling wild and exotic animal exhibits are under-insured, considering the potential public danger associated with their industry. Because of the liability issue, the city or county issuing permits for the use of these animals is placing tremendous responsibility on the taxpayers in the community.

Tuberculosis is not the only microorganism that can be transmitted from elephant to human. Other deadly germs include Salmonella, Anthrax, Encephalomyelitis virus and E.coli. All of these microorganisms have caused death in humans.

#804 is a good ordinance. It removes elephants as a source of often deadly human infections.


Peggy W. Larson, DVM, MS, JD

[Editor's Note: Address deleted in interests of safety]

e-mail: [email protected] 

For more information, see the following website:

Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection as a Zoonotic Disease: Transmission betwee 

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