Circus No Fun For Its Elephants

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Circus No Fun For Its Elephants

By Dino Vlachos and Jill Howard Church
February 2009

As Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus makes its annual appearance at Philips Arena in Atlanta this week, a far different event is taking place in a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C. A judge will decide if Ringling’s treatment of its elephants violates the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Make no mistake about it: Animal-based circuses like Ringling are inherently cruel and deadly to animals.


In 2003, four national animal protection groups and a former Ringling employee filed suit against Ringling and its parent company, Feld Entertainment, for “harming, harassing and wounding endangered elephants.”

The charges state that “Ringling Bros. engages in these unlawful activities by routinely beating elephants to ‘train’ them, ‘discipline’ them, and keep them under control” and that the elephants are chained in place for long periods of time and frequently hit with bullhooks, a wooden pole about two feet long that has a sharp metal hook at one end.


The lawsuit is bringing to light what many elephant experts and animal advocates have known for years: that these large, powerful and intelligent animals cannot be confined, subdued and forced to perform without a significant amount of physical force.

That of course is contrary to the circus’ carefully cultivated image as one big interspecies party.

But we must remember that the circus is a multimillion-dollar business. Its profits depend upon a charade where animals are treated one way on stage and another way backstage.

Being in a circus means traveling in railroad boxcars for months on end, in extreme heat and cold.

Being chained in asphalt parking lots and arena basements causes debilitating arthritis, and circus elephants are prone to carrying (and can spread) tuberculosis.

Those testifying in the circus trial include biologists, former Ringling employees and the co-founder of the country’s largest elephant sanctuary (where numerous former circus elephants live).

They are telling the elephants’ side of the story, the one that presents the circus not as a few hours of human entertainment, but a lifetime of animal misery.

Ringling’s lawyers juggle words the way their clowns juggle balls, pretending that sharp bullhooks are only “guides” and that chains are simply “tethers” like leashes for dogs.

P.T. Barnum coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and Feld Entertainment has been banking on that ever since.

Want to know who’s telling the truth? Simple: Just follow the money. Ringling makes millions from the abuse of animals.

Georgia Animal Rights and Protection will be leafleting at the circus, not to put it out of business, but to demand humane reforms that should have been made years ago.

Elephants don’t belong there. If it takes a federal trial or improved legislation to get them out, so be it.

It’s terrible to think that any society would sacrifice the health and well-being of innocent animals for selfish purposes.

Thankfully, other circuses have created wonderful shows that don’t rely on archaic “man vs. beast” spectacles.

There are humane choices for parents and “children of all ages,” and those very shows are in Atlanta right now. If you wouldn’t take your children to a dogfight, you shouldn’t take them to an animal-based circus like Ringling.

The elephants are finally getting their day in court, and hopefully justice will prevail.

In the meantime, the paying public can read court transcripts online and watch news reports in order to learn the whole story about what for now remains the cruelest show on earth.

Dino Vlachos is president of Georgia Animal Rights and Protection (GARP). Jill Howard Church is a member of GARP and a freelance writer.

For updates on the 2009 Ringling Bros. trial, visit here.

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