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Few animals are as majestic as the elephant. They embody many of the qualities we humans admire: strength, compassion, community, intelligence and so on. Videos of  calves getting stuck in the water and mud, only to be saved by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers melt our hearts. Basically, elephant societies fascinate us.

Researchers have found that like humans, elephants grieve the loss of their loved ones. When passing the spot their loved one died, many elephants will stop and stand silently for several minutes. They have been seen cradling and caressing the remains of deceased elephants. Others have observed the power of maternal love in elephants.

Studies prove what common sense tells us. Elephants are emotional, intellectual, social beings. Despite this, we use and abuse them, making them perform for us in circuses. While we may find them awe-inspiring in front of an audience, many circus-goers don’t know what it takes to get these elephants ready for the show.

Separation of Mother and Baby

After a USDA investigation in 1999, Ringling Brothers personnel admitted that in order to separate the mother elephant from her calf, ropes are tied around the baby’s legs and the baby is forced away from his or her mother.

According to the USDA, this practice causes the elephants, “trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and unnecessary discomfort.”

Wild elephant herds are made of up to anywhere between 8 to 100 elephants, with the head of the herd being the oldest female. Baby elephants spend up to 15 years with their mother, nursing until they are about three. Mother elephants keep their babies close, touching them, bathing them, protecting them from predators. In the circus, these three-year-old elephants can be seen balancing on two legs, balls, on each other, and sometimes even on their own heads and engaging in other behaviors that are unnatural to elephants. And of course, they aren’t under their mother’s protection.

Unnatural Habitats

It goes without saying that circus elephants live in an environment that is far from natural. Bound by chains and shipped from location to location via train prevents them from engaging in their most basic behaviors. Did you know that wild elephants spend much of their day walking? Not so for circus elephants.

In order to control the elephants and limit their ability to move, workers tie heavy chains around the elephants’ ankles. Not only does this keep them in line while they are training, but it also prevents them from lying down or having normal social interactions with their fellow elephants.

According to the Wild Life Advocacy Project, “More often than not the elephants are chained on hard surfaces like cement instead of the soil their feet and joints are designed for. As a result, elephants suffer painful foot problems, arthritis, and other painful physical ailments.”

Physical Abuse

Circus elephants are “broken” with the use of a bullhook. A bullhook is club or stick with a sharp hook at the end. Workers poke, hit, and beat elephants with the bullhook to reinforce the behaviors they want. While it’s true these animals’ skins are strong, they are also sensitive. Circus trainers exploit this fact by hitting them in their most sensitive areas, that is behind their ears, their trucks, and their heads.

Check out this undercover video PETA put out of Ringling Brothers employees whipping elephants with the bullhooks moments before heading out into the ring.

Former circus employees have reported that in addition to being beaten, circus elephants are often denied food and water, “all to force them to learn their routines.” They learn quickly that if they want to eat or drink, then the must perform.

With all the abuse circus elephants endure, is it any wonder that these beings who would normally live about 70 years don’t live much past 14 in the circus? Circus elephants, like all animals, deserve kindness and respect and they certainly aren’t getting it with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, or any other circus that uses animals. To do right by the elephants, boycott any circus that uses them and opt for a human-only circus like Cirque du Soleil.

Image source: Laura Bittner/Flickr