Who doesn't like elephants? From childhood, when a grown-up reads to us, from Babar or Horton Hears A Who, or when we're introduced to the cute, giant-eared Dumbo, we absorb the notion that elephants are smart, noble and maybe even a little bit like us. Elephants loom large in the world's popular culture, as symbols of wisdom, strength and memory; as images on some countries' flags; even as logos on some men's shirts. There are temples in Asia that use sculptures of elephants as pillars; and even one of India's favorite gods, Ganesh, has an elephant head. And those lists don't begin to include all the elephants in our literature, advertising, mythology, toys, music, and video games.
Our lifelong familiarity with elephants is one of the things that draw us to zoos and circuses; some of us even like to watch the elephants walk from the train to the venue when the circus comes to town. This week, "the" circus — Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey — is in Charlotte, and, as the daily paper breathlessly reported, one of "the attractions that will keep you and your kids gasping and laughing" is "the return of Baby Barack, the baby elephant who turned 2 on Jan. 19, walking the ring with mother Bonnie." Sounds lovable — kind of like seeing Dumbo's mother cuddling and protecting him, huh? If you attend the circus this week, I sincerely hope you enjoy it; I will definitely not be there, however, and it's because of the elephants.
I used to love circuses, and I still have great admiration for many of the performers. But as I've grown older, I can no longer justify paying to see an event that holds great, noble beasts like elephants (or tigers and lions, for that matter) in captivity, simply for the entertainment of humans.
A few months ago, in a column about the killer whale trainer in Florida whose "student" killed her, I wrote that, after the initial shock over the trainer's death, my next reaction was, "Why don't they just let these animals be?" That's how I feel now about nearly any "trained animal" act, but especially if the animals are something as iconic as elephants.
I'm certainly no expert on elephant training, and the circus claims it does all it can to keep the elephants healthy. But it remains true that circus elephants are kept in spaces that are far too small for their instinctive needs, which is known to cause them great anxiety; and they are taught, through arduous, some say cruel, "training," to perform tricks and get into poses that are completely unnatural to them. It's also true that elephants are handled, poked, prodded and struck with sharp bullhooks, which resemble fireplace pokers. In 2009, an animal protection group secretly filmed Ringling elephant handlers routinely and repeatedly striking elephants about the head with bullhooks, just before performances, for no apparent reason. (If you want to see that footage, go here: https://secure.peta.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=2359. Good luck watching it, though; I've yet to make it all the way through.)
I know that a lot of people simply don't care how the animals in shows are trained, and don't think twice about the suitability of making ancient species do silly tricks for our pleasure. But I can't take part in that kind of thing anymore, much less support it with my money. If that sounds wussy, well, so be it. To cut to the chase, it seems to me that for trainers and circuses to make their living by taking advantage of the empathy that humans have for wildlife — and to do so by forcing that wildlife to become a shadow of its real self — is plainly immoral.
Oh, remember the baby elephant that will be walking in with his mother at TWC arena? Just look at the attached photo to see some of the training Ringling's young elephants are put through; if you can live with supporting it, then, like I said, enjoy the show.
John Grooms is a multiple award-winning writer and editor, teacher, public speaker, event organizer, cultural critic, music history buff and incurable smartass. He writes the Boomer With Attitude column, news features and book reviews, and contributes to the CL news blog, The CLog (www.theclogblog.com).