Elephants have captivated human imagination across cultures and generations. The elephant is the largest land mammal alive today. She is highly intelligent, deeply emotional, and self-aware. Her complex neuroanatomy mimics that of the human brain, containing specialized spindle neurons, highly branching pyramidal neurons, and higher processing centers that are believed to be instrumental in our ability to perceive and process ourselves and our environment, and to feel emotion. Elephants have demonstrated evidence of highly sophisticated cognitive processes, including a recognition and awareness of self, empathy towards others, cooperation, and creative problem solving.
In the wild, this amazing brain helps her fulfill her role as the wise matriarch. She is the pillar of the elephant society – guiding her family to distant water holes, protecting them from ever evolving threats, nurturing new generations of elephant life and mourning the passing of elders. In the wild, these deep emotional bonds not only help elephants survive, they also allow them to experience the richness of social life that was once thought to be reserved only for the human experience. It is now obvious to scientists that the elephant brain is a unique and sophisticated miracle of nature – but for captive elephants in America, it can also be a curse.
With a complex elephant brain comes an equally complex array of behaviors and needs. These needs are perfectly suited to the ecological niche that the elephant evolved to fill. In the wild, she would roam over vast distances, explore and manipulate her environment, spend hours foraging or browsing for food, and grow to protect, raise, and nurture life-long bonds with her young. By contrast, in captivity, elephants are routinely deprived of even their most basic physical and behavioral needs, and the result is extreme psychological distress and debilitating physical ailments. Elephants in America can be found in a variety of circumstances from zoos, to private ownership, to circuses. However, regardless of the captive circumstance, elephants have proven through decades of public display that they are both physically and psychologically ill-equipped to thrive in our world.
With that amazing brain, she is made acutely aware of her deprived condition. She will never forget the day she was traumatically ripped from her mother’s side to be sold into captivity.
In order to teach her of her subordinate position and make her “safe” to work with, her human trainers stripped her quickly of any shred of free will by employing brutal training tactics intended to “break her spirit.” As with a human child, she will carry with her the scars of this physical and psychological trauma for the rest of her life.
Even her basic anatomy is ill-fitted to the captive lifestyle. Inadequately small and artificial enclosures, barns, or boxcars inhibit the wide array of natural behaviors and freedom of movement required to keep an elephant happy and healthy. Concrete surfaces and inadequate care result in a high incidence of debilitating foot disease, including chronically cracked and infected nails and subsolar abscesses. A variety of factors found in captivity, including unnatural substrates, extreme confinement, and abnormal behaviors are also thought to play a role the development of early-onset osteoarthritis commonly observed in captive elephants; a disease which is not only cripplingly painful, but can be a death sentence. Typically, osteoarthritis is considered a disease of old age, but not for captive elephants. In fact, osteoarthritis and foot disease are the leading causes of euthanasia in captive elephants who routinely die decades earlier than their wild counterparts.
As if this weren’t enough, right now elephants in North America are being diagnosed with the highly infectious human strain of TB at such an alarming rate that scientists warn it may become a widespread epidemic. TB causes chronic wasting and prolonged suffering, and death in infected elephants if left untreated. Elephants can carry and shed the pathogen that causes TB without showing any overt clinical signs of disease. This means that it is challenging to determine exactly how prevalent the disease is in the captive elephant population. Before 2010, TB was confirmed in about 12 percent of the captive elephant population in the U.S. However, the actual number is suspected to be much higher.
Circuses that force elephants to perform, such as Ringling Brothers, are a petri dish for this infectious disease. Circus elephants who are chronically stressed due to confinement, training, performance, and constant travel are more likely to have compromised immune systems, leaving them more susceptible to infectious disease. These animals are then confined to cramped and poorly-ventilated boxcars for hours and sometimes days on end.
Elephant TB is the circus industry’s best kept secret. Ringling is fully aware of the serious public health threat posed by tuberculosis, which infected elephants can transmit to people even without direct physical contact. As a result, they have struggled for years to hide evidence of the high incidence of TB infection in their elephants and have fought against efforts to improve testing and government regulations for elephant TB. Documents recently obtained by PETA even indicate that just last year an elephant with TB was performing in Ringling shows across the country for two months before being quarantined.
While elephant advocates across the world rejoiced on March 5th 2015 when Ringling Brothers announced that it will retire its circus elephants in three years, we also recognize that three years from now is three years too late.
Science and history have spoken. We now know that elephants are individuals, with unique talents, complex needs, deep emotional lives, and the equal ability to feel pain and experience suffering. We also know that their health and welfare are tremendously compromised in captivity. Armed with this knowledge, we have an obligation to put an end to Ringling’s irresponsible, reckless, and abusive exploitation of circuses elephants at the expense of their wellbeing and the safety of the public.
The circus should retire the elephants right now, today, and provide adequate care for them at an accredited sanctuary. We owe it to them.