How Circus Elephants Are Sometimes Abused by Their Trainers

View Of Elephant In Circus
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It is important to note that the elephant is highly endangered. There were once millions of African elephants who roamed the entire continent. Now their numbers are estimated at around 300,000 and mainly found in sub-Saharan Africa. The Asian elephant is even more critical. Its numbers are down to only about 30,000. There were at one time millions. Not only are some animal acts harming and killing elephants, but they are also doing this to a highly endangered species. In order to train an 8,000-11,000 pound animal – who can be very deadly to humans – to perform tricks seen in circuses such as headstands, tightrope walking, roller skating and such, often it is believed that the fierce application of negative reinforcement is required. Physical punishment has often been a standard training method for animals in circuses. Elephants are sometimes beaten, shocked, and whipped in order for them to perform repeatedly the routines of circus performance. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) does not prohibit the use of bullhooks, whips, electrical shock prods, or other such training devices. The elephants are beaten by several people for up to fifteen minutes at a time with bull-hooks. Their skin being as sensitive as humans', one can understand the torture this entails.


According to congressional testimony provided by former Beatty-Cole elephant keeper Tom Rider, "[I]n White Plains, N.Y., when Pete did not perform her act properly, she was taken to the tent and laid down, and five trainers beat her with bull-hooks." Rider also told officials that "[a]fter my three years working with elephants in the circus, I can tell you that they live in confinement and they are beaten all the time when they don't perform properly" (Rider). To hide this from circus goers, lacerations from bull-hooks are often covered up with "wonder dust," a type of theatrical pancake makeup (according to ​ The public does not see the violence and abuse some of these elephants endure. Not all animal trainers are abusive; some do care deeply for the animals in their trust. Nonetheless, from the easily accessible literature on the web, it appears abuse does happen.


Possibly even worse than the negative reinforcement, though, is the confinement performing elephants endure. Remember elephants sometimes walk up to 50 miles a day and they are often confined to spaces no bigger than a standard American one-bedroom apartment. In states which require the chaining of elephants when not performing, elephants are chained in spaces the size of an average automobile by two legs for up to twenty hours a day. reports:

During the off-season, animals used in circuses may be housed in traveling crates or barn stalls; some are even kept in trucks. Such unrelieved physical confinement can have harmful physical and psychological effects on animals. These effects are often indicated by unnatural behaviors such as repeated head bobbing, swaying, and pacing. (Epstein) A study of circuses conducted by Animal Defenders International in the United Kingdom "found abnormal behaviors of this kind in all of the species observed." Investigators witnessed elephants that were chained for 70 percent of the day, horses that were confined for 23 hours per day, and large cats that were kept in cages up to 99 percent of the time (Creamer & Phillips).


Other than the beatings and the chaining, another reason pop culture should consider not attending animal circuses is a human danger. Eventually, after years and sometimes decades of circus life, these large animals sometimes will go mad, rampage, and kill trainers, circus members, and audience members just as Tyke did in Hawaii. In a worst-case scenario situation, an elephant named Janet rampaged with children on her back during a performance of the Great American Circus in Palm Bay. The officer who finally killed her after shooting 47 rounds into the elephant who supposedly had been chained and beaten for years said:

"I think these elephants are trying to tell us that zoos and circuses are not what God created them for ... but we have not been listening...this is the kind of stuff people protest about" (Sahagun, Louis. "Elephants Pose Giant Dangers," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 11, 1994).