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Born to Be Wild

Six reasons Ringling made the right call

by Karen E. Lange

Photo by H. Lansdown/Alamy

Elephants in the wild are majestic creatures, living long, unbounded lives. The decision by Ringling Bros. to retire its elephants from circus performances moves the entertainment industry toward eliminating the use of these animals—and keeping them where they belong.

“This is a major step,” says Debbie Leahy, HSUS manager of captive wildlife protection, noting The HSUS would like to see the animals retired now, not in three years, and that she hopes "the smaller circuses can follow.”

Here then are six traits of elephants, six reasons that circus life is cruel:

1. Elephants in the wild walk up to 30 miles a day. They walk to find food and water but also to stay active. In circuses, elephants are often chained in tight spaces for the majority of their lives and made to stand on concrete for long periods, leading to life-threatening foot and joint disorders.

2. Elephant calves in the wild are nurtured by loving mothers, sisters and aunts. They are encouraged, never disciplined with physical punishment. In contrast, circuses punish young elephants with sharp metal bullhooks. “The training is brutal,” elephant researcher Cynthia Moss told a Florida radio station. “They have to break the elephant’s spirit.”

  • Photo by Aditya Singh/Alamy

3. Elephants maintain strong family ties. Female elephants in the wild stay with their mothers and families for life; male elephants stay until they are at least 14. Circuses take calves away from their mothers by age 3, causing lifelong emotional scars.

4. Elephants are social animals. They live in groups of around 20 and constantly communicate with each other and with other groups through vocalizations, gestures and expressions. Circus elephants are sometimes solitary, like Nosey, the sole elephant with the Liebel Family Circus. Those in groups are prevented from engaging in normal social behaviors for hours or days at a time.

5. They are cooperative. Elephant matriarchs in the wild assume authority through kinship ties and affection, leading by example and experience. Circus trainers use the opposite approach: fear and the threat of pain, causing constant stress and abnormal aggression.

6. Elephants live long lives in the wild. They can survive 50-60 years, dying typically when their teeth wear down. Captive elephants die decades earlier, usually because their feet and joints give out.

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