The Saddest Show on Earth

It takes a lot to get circusgoers to see beyond the headdresses and glitter to that metal-tipped bullhook sinking into an elephant's soft flesh behind her ears and knees.
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Elephants have the largest brains of any mammal on the face of the Earth. They are creative, altruistic and kind. They use tools to sweep paths and even to draw pictures in the dirt and scratch themselves in inaccessible places, and they communicate subsonically at frequencies so low that humans cannot detect them without sophisticated equipment. Imagine, then, what it must be like for them to be told what to do, courtesy of a bullhook -- a rod resembling a fireplace poker with a sharp metal hook on the end -- at every moment of their lives. Yet this is what life is like for elephants used in circuses, who are constantly beaten and kept chained, sometimes for days at a time.

It takes a lot to get circusgoers to see beyond the headdresses and glitter to that metal-tipped bullhook sinking into an elephant's soft flesh behind her ears and knees. But I hope that PETA's new undercover investigation of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will help open some eyes.

PETA's investigator caught Ringling employees digging sharp metal bullhooks into the sensitive skin behind elephants' knees and under their trunks. Eight employees -- including an animal superintendent and a head elephant trainer -- used bullhooks and other objects to strike elephants on the head, ears and trunk. Employees whipped elephants and a tiger, including on or near the face. One elephant, Tonka, repeatedly exhibited signs of severe psychological stress but was nevertheless forced to perform night after night. The footage can be seen at


All of this was going on while Ringling was already on trial in a federal court in Washington, D.C., answering charges that its elephant-handling practices violate the federal Endangered Species Act.

In their natural homes, elephants live for more than 70 years; their average life span in captivity is just 14 years. Because of stress, travel in boxcars and time spent stabled in damp basements, many captive elephants have arthritis, lame legs and tuberculosis.

Left to their own devices in their homelands, elephants are highly social beings who enjoy extended family relationships. Aunts babysit, mothers teach junior life skills such as how to use different kinds of leaves and mud to ward off sunburn and insect bites, babies play together under watchful eyes, lovemaking is gentle and complex and elephant relatives mourn their dead.

In captivity, elephants are deprived of all these experiences. Life under the big top means "pay attention to your trainers, feel the bite of their implements in your flesh, don't stumble or falter even if you feel tired or ill, obey, obey, obey." It means leg chains between acts, the loss of all comfort and warmth from your father and mother and no long-term friends.

Behaviorists tell us that elephants can and do cry from the loss of social interaction and from physical abuse. Yes, cry. If you wonder how these magnificent beings keep from going mad -- waiting in line night after night, eyes riveted on the person with the metal hook, ready to circle to the music in their beaded headdresses -- perhaps the answer is, they don't. PETA's investigator at Ringling documented stereotypic behavior, which is typically seen in animals who are suffering from extreme stress caused by a lack of anything to do, the inability to move around, severe frustration and desolation.

Sometimes, elephants stop behaving like wind-up toys and crush the bones and breath out of a keeper, make a break for it, go berserk or run amok. But most simply endure. Their spirits were broken during their capture and, later, God help them, when they were trained for the ring. Otherwise, they would all use their immense strength to fight back against the human hand of tyranny. They would refuse to be kept chained between performances like coats on a rack, refuse to be backed up ramps into railroad cars and trailers like so many cars being parked out of the way.

Ringling and other circuses have made it clear that they have no intention of stopping their abusive practices. And the law -- which provides minimal requirements for cage size and little else -- does not protect animals in circuses. It's up to us to say "enough is enough."

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