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Baby Elephants' Circus Misery

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Baby Elephants' Circus Misery

By Deborah Robinson, In Defense of Animals (IDA)
May 2013

A baby elephant named Hugo just had a birthday, but it wasn’t a happy one.

At the tender age of two, Hugo spent the day, as he has spent every day so far since Cole Bros. Circus began its 2013 season in March, in a hotwired enclosure very, very far from his mother.

At only two years of age, Hugo should still be nursing, but life in the circus is as far from natural as can be imagined. In the wild, male elephants spend their childhood with an extended family of females and other young males who nurture, teach, and care for the youngsters until they reach their teens and are ready to leave the herd. Female elephants live with their mothers and their extended families for their entire lives.

Hugo’s older sister Val is also on the road with Cole Bros. Circus. Val turned six on Saturday, April 27. In the wild Val would be at the beginning of a life that would keep her forever by her mother’s side, roaming many miles each day through an always stimulating landscape.

But Hugo and Val had the horrible misfortune of being born, instead, at the Carson and Barnes Circus breeding farm in Oklahoma.

Baby animals are big circus attractions, and they are sent out on the road as soon as they’re trained to perform. Because baby elephants are large enough to be hard to control, circus handlers tear them from their mothers and begin training at an early age. Before they were a year old, Hugo and Val were being trained.

baby elephant circus misery Hugo
Photos like this show how young elephants are tied up and dragged into unnatural and uncomfortable positions by handlers who show the babies that resistance means being hurt with a bullhook. Photo courtesy of PETA

Like her brother Hugo, Val was on the road with the circus before she was even two, without her mother. Most often, she is rented out to the Cole Bros. Circus, which travels from March to December, from Florida to Maine and back again. The circus moves every two or three days, often late at night, after a grueling performance schedule of two and sometimes three shows daily at each location. Val performs in each show. Already, Val has learned to stand on her hind legs and to balance herself as she walks across a plank—just two of the unforgiving tricks that could damage her young body beyond repair.

Perhaps as a result of her traumatic and stressful life so far, Val paces and bobs her head almost constantly. Called “stereotypies,” these repetitive, unvarying, and apparently functionless behavior patterns are widely believed to indicate welfare problems, including severe stress.

Hugo was on the road even earlier than Val, at age one. At that time, his mother, Whimpy, traveled with him; neither of them performed, but he was being trained and acclimated for his own circus “career.” This year, he is part of the show, and he is alone.

Traveling together might have provided brother and sister with some comfort, but an observer recently noted that Hugo spends his nights entirely alone on the circus truck. During the day he appears to be separated from the other elephants with electrical wiring. At this tender age, he already seems to have begun repetitive movements of his own to cope with the stress.

Elephants are highly social and extremely tactile. If you watch elephant families in the wild, they constantly touch one another with their trunks, and lean in on one another. When a baby is frightened, mom and the other elephants comfort him with trunk caresses. Neither Hugo nor Val has that comfort.

So Hugo did not have a happy birthday and neither did Val, a few days later. IDA recently provided the USDA, the agency charged with protecting the welfare of exhibited animals, with photo and video documentation showing that Val and Hugo are exhibiting signs of poor welfare. IDA asked the USDA to take Hugo and Val off the road and to investigate their physical and mental well-being. This is not the first time that IDA has sought relief for traveling baby elephants, but this video evidence of their suffering should be harder to ignore.

IDA and these baby elephants need your help. Keep an eye on the schedule for Cole Bros. Circus as it travels up and down the east coast. If the circus is headed your way, please contact us at circus@idausa.org to learn more about how you can take action to help Hugo and Val and the other animals who are forced to perform.