The Big Topple

It’s hard to imagine a circus without elephants, but let’s hope that is the direction we’re going, now that Ringling has announced its intent to retire its herd of pachyderms. I’ve heard both arguments on the cause of elephants in entertainment.  The pro side claims they were never mistreated; to retire them would open up a whole new can of worms; elephants take a lot of care, upkeep and expense, and to retire them is a humongous problem in space and housing.


“Family Columns”, pastel

The “con” side is the more compelling argument; the long hours standing in an overcrowded trailer; the beatings and abuse; the heartbreaking separation of the young from their mothers.   To retire elephants requires thought; caring for an elephant is no small task.  To care for a whole retired herd, namely hundreds of behemoths of all ages, some broken down and needing special attention, is indeed an elephant-sized proposition..

Those of us who love elephants hate to see them taken from their natural environment in the first place.  We have learned that elephants cross hundreds of miles of terrain on foot every year, that they bond inexorably with other family members, that they raise their young with help of others, that they produce a variety of low- and high-frequency sounds, some of which are used to communicate to others, miles away.  One gets the feeling we have only scratched the tough, leathery hide of the many nuances still lurking within this intelligent and socially sophisticated creature.  Ideally, we would most like to see them out on the savannah (from the safety of a sturdy vehicle, please) but even that is no longer the ideal, as they suffer from habitat destruction and of course poachers who want to whack off their tusks.


“Happy Elephant”, acrylic on slate

Our world, sadly, is changing in some extreme and unfriendly ways. But, we have modern technology to thank for the evolution of empathy.  If it wasn’t for YouTube, the practice of abusing elephants may have remained in the dark ages, forever shrouded from the public eye.

I met an elephant at a Ren fest in Colorado in the 1980’s. I could see him giving rides across the crowd. When I got up to him and saw the guy with the big stick, and the chain on his foot, I didn’t want to ride him anymore. I had a bag of mini cinnamon donut holes in my hand and I was standing there in the audience watching him. He stopped once, unbidded, right in front of me. A feeling of pervading sadness washed over me. I could feel his gentle complacency. But he knew I had those donut holes. I may have spoken to him; I can’t remember, but he knew to stop. He put his trunk out and I popped the tiny donut hole into his trunk. He swung it up into his mouth and walked on. After that, each time he made the circle, he would stop in front of me. I would give him a donut hole and he would move on and make another circle. When the bag was empty, I crept away before he came back, because I couldn’t stand the thought of disappointing him. I will never forget that.  At the time I was unaware of the plight of elephants used for public entertainment, but beyond the obvious wild-animal-relegated-to-carnie-lifestyle problem, I knew something wasn’t right because I could feel it from him. 


African elephant on slate

On circus performer Zelie Bullen’s Facebook Page, there is a post that reads: Have you ever stood at “The back door” of a circus trying to hold your animals back from wanting to burst through that curtain from sheer excitement and enthusiasm knowing that they can’t wait to get out there and show off because they feed off all the attention? Have you ever giggled mid performance as your animals randomly play or jump from the fresh change in the weather or the rain outside, temporarily changing the routine completely? Have you ever enjoyed watching your animals anticipate travel day knowing that they’ll soon arrive at a fresh circus lot/ground full of fresh grass or browse and new smells? Have you ever watched on with sorrow as one of your animals paces their enclosure desperate to join the group knowing the music so well that they fret from having to sit out of a performance due to illness or lameness?

Actually, yes, I have. I have stood backstage with eager critters, and have had to comfort some who were sidelined for whatever reason. Mine were dogs, and a silly horse, and sometimes even cats. Zelie paints a best-case scenario for wild animals in captivity, and I hope that in her case at least, it is the truth. I totally agree that there are zealots and wackos in animal rights groups and even animal rescue groups — I have experienced them first hand. But it doesn’t erase the shadow cast by a captive pachyderm who was born to roam for miles with family members — or a captive whale, swimming in a bathtub, for that matter. Yes, elephants are incredible, sensitive and intuitive creatures, capable of bonding and exhibiting great feats of strength and athleticism — and we can take them off the savannah, breed them in captivity, and make them dance — but does that mean we should?minielephant

About Nancy J. Bailey

Artist, author, bad karaoke singer. Woodsy ragamuffin. Mom of a horse named Clifford who plays fetch and paints with watercolors. He visits libraries and schools with me, to promote literacy and making the world a better place. Yes, he is house trained, no, he doesn't live in my house! I have written three books about Clifford. But my newest book, THE NORTH SIDE OF DOWN, is co-written by my awesome sister Amanda, who has Down syndrome. Her unexpected one-liner wisecracks can always make me laugh. If you make me laugh, you've made my day!
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