I've also noted that circuses are not inherently detrimental to the welfare of elephants.
But the big cities have been passing job-killing regulations that lead to unemployed elephants, as the downside of running what you call The Greatest Show on Earth and what students of circus know as Big Bertha is that you have to play the big cities.
Thus do Ringling Barnum's powerful performing pachyderms go out to pasture, where Washington Post reporter Kristin Henderson has followed them.
Elephants have been the stars of American circuses since circuses began. Why the elephants? Why not the equally odd-looking camels or just-as-beautiful horses? What was it about elephants that drew humans to them? They’re smart, but so are primates. They’re big and long-lived, but so are whales. They live in close-knit families, but so do wolves. None of those other mammals has become such a part of our culture. We’ve got pink elephants, white elephants, the GOP mascot and the elephant in the room, while the name of the 19th century’s beloved Jumbo came to signify all things large.Ms Henderson contrasts the behavior of Ringling Barnum's elephant crews with the lurid stories of abused elephants of days and circuses gone by. (Some of that lore made its way into Water for Elephants.) I wonder if there isn't a little projection, or perhaps false analogy, in the following.
In the century before the Great Depression, abused circus elephants that killed their tormentors were sometimes viewed as criminals and executed. But more often, an elephant that broke its chains and left a swath of destruction through an American town was cheered on by crowds of average folks living hardscrabble lives. For them, the elephant’s rampage was probably the cathartic fulfillment of their own frustrated fantasies.Beware the trumpeting of the Trumpening? Or perhaps I want this long national nightmare to be resolved? But that's old legend, combined with modern understanding of animal training.
Starting in 1969, the legendary Ringling animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams pioneered a way of presenting wild animals in shows: as friendly partners rather than as dangerous beasts to be dominated by brave men. “That change seemed at first almost like a nuance,” says Janice Aria, who has worked with elephants and bears during a long career with Ringling. “But I saw that really had an amazing trickle-down effect into the way all of us approached this. You know, wait a minute, maybe it isn’t always the loudest voice, it isn’t the strongest person. It’s the person that can most intuitively connect with these animals that’s going to get the most consistent result from them.” Since the 1970s, Aria has watched elephant handling go from an all-male community with a cowboy attitude to women making up about half of Ringling’s handlers today, including the top two people in charge of animal stewardship: Aria, the director, and her deputy. The way Aria sees it, “Women have an inherent nurturing that many guys don’t have, and I think elephants respond really well to that.”The art of animal training is giving the animal incentive to do what it wants to do anyway. The better trainers might have been quicker to figure that out, and you really don't want to do anything abusive around an animal that weights four tons, or, as with the lions and tigers and bears, oh my! that could rip your head off if you mistreated one. Ms Henderson notes that elephants are capable of identifying their friends.
During those 40-plus years, training and handling methods grew steadily more professional and humane. “We used to manage elephants with stimuli that taught them to move away from things,” says Brandie Smith, the National Zoo’s associate director of animal care. “Now we use operant and positive conditioning to teach them to move toward things. That’s now the accepted standard for shaping behavior during training.”
Psychologist G.A. Bradshaw, author of “Elephants on the Edge,” describes how elephants have demonstrated they’re capable of distinguishing between humans who hurt them and humans who don’t. In Africa, young elephants who witnessed the slaughter of their families by one group of humans were rescued by other humans. Later, out in the bush, those still-wild elephants protected their human rescuers from dangers that included their fellow wild elephants.Those are savanna elephants, which are rare in circus acts. Rainforest elephants comprise most of the remaining acts. Ringling's pachyderms, however, are no longer performing.
When the portal curtains opened and the ringmaster began to belt “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they walked out into the spotlight for the show’s made-in-America opening moment: a man from Wisconsin striding briskly alongside an elephant from Asia ridden by a woman from Mongolia carrying a large, flowing American flag. The routine was simple. Once around the arena, stop, raise trunk and right foot in a kind of salute to the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s hard to say if Asia was enjoying herself, but the audience was cheering wildly.Ms. Henderson, after a passage that eloquent, I will cut you some slack for referring to Circus World as a theme park. Big Bertha's elephants are at a complex in Florida, without the audible and visible cues that the show is about to start. Are they bored? Who knows.
Is it inherently wrong to make elephants entertain us? Does it make a difference if, unlike Asia, they were born in captivity, so long as we work to give them a happy, healthy life? When elephants’ basic needs are met, when they grow excited in anticipation of something good and interact peacefully with those around them, that looks like something that could be called happiness. Watching Asia and her traveling sisters week after week, that was what I saw.
As we wait for the science to catch up, does the departure of the Ringling elephants from the public arena reveal that we’re finally learning how to be a wiser, more humane society? Or does it just expose our willingness to settle for easy answers in response to the loudest voices? The answer may well be both.Read the article, weigh the evidence, draw your own conclusion.
Over the summer, the Karlson Brothers Circus acquired additional model elephants. You'll be able to see the travelling circus in miniature, even as the real thing changes.