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Please Don't Ride the Elephants

A closer look at elephant rides reveals hidden cruelty and serious risks

The Humane Society of the United States

Elephant rides have an understandable appeal—they offer a unique opportunity to get close to the world's largest land animal. But a closer look reveals hidden cruelty and serious risks.

Cruelty behind the scenes

Cruelty that may not be evident to spectators often occurs behind the scenes in various forms—in abusive training methods used to try to control animals of this size; in chaining them for many hours a day; and in depriving them of social contact with other elephants.

Because of the unnatural environments in which they live, captive elephants often suffer from debilitating foot conditions, arthritis and other ailments.

The confined life of captive elephants is in sharp contrast to that of elephants in the wild, who may walk 30 miles a day and establish life-long bonds.

Accidents waiting to happen

There is no predicting when elephants will respond aggressively to harsh treatment or when a seemingly innocuous incident will set them on a fearful rampage. With their large size, even a small misstep can be deadly.

Imagine being on the back of an elephant when the elephant decides to run. That's what happened in Florida in 1992. A woman and five children were riding an 8,000-pound Asian elephant, called both Janet and Kelly, when the elephant suddenly bolted. Spectators ran, and some were injured. Fortunately, the riders got down without being trampled. Police fired shots at the elephant, who survived an initial hail of bullets. It took ammunition meant to shoot through armored vehicles to kill her. No child should witness such a scene.

A 6,000-pound Asian elephant named Sue was giving rides to two young children in Utah in 1994 when her trainer accidentally bumped into her. The elephant picked up the trainer, tossed him down, and stepped on him, putting him in critical condition. The children escaped injury.

An 8,000-pound African elephant, Kenya, was brought in by a contractor to give rides at the Louisville zoo in 1994. She picked up a man with her trunk and threw him to the ground, causing severe injuries. The zoo stopped offering elephant rides after the incident. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits and sets standards for zoos, strongly encourages its members to discontinue public elephant rides in the interest of safety.

In 2006 in Massachusetts, an elephant bumped into two men who were putting children on her back for rides at a travelling zoo; one suffered a broken arm. In 2009 in Indiana, an elephant giving rides at a circus became spooked and caused a mobile stairway to collapse, injuring some children.

In addition to being accidents waiting to happen, as this sampling shows, elephant rides pose other health risks.

Potential spread of disease

Elephants can carry dangerous diseases and transmit them to people. Research indicates that elephants with tuberculosis have spread the disease to handlers, for example. One circus reportedly kept using elephants for rides after knowing the animals had tuberculosis.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in March 2009 on the first known case of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in an elephant at a California zoo. The elephant likely got the infection from a caretaker and then spread it to other caretakers.

Elephants are not amusement park rides

We do not put children on mechanical rides without protecting them and requiring standards of safety. Yet we put them on top of 8,000-pound elephants with no protection whatsoever.

Elephants are not amusement park rides. They are wild animals weighing thousands of pounds. Putting children on their backs can be dangerous and teaches nothing about the lives of these magnificent animals in the wild. In the interests of public health and safety as well as animal welfare, please don't ride the elephants.

Download our "The TRUTH Behind the Big Top" brochure in pdf format