City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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POLL: Should elephants be a part of the circus?

UPDATE 2/19: A zebra from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus got free in downtown Atlanta this afternoon and was eventually caught between lanes of traffic on the Downtown Connector. Here’s the story: “Circus zebra leads police on wild chase.” PETA has asked for an investigation into the zebra escape.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants dined on fruits and bread in Centennial Olympic Park in 2006. Every time the circus comes to town, it renews the animal welfare discussion. AJC file photo

Two animal rights groups contacted Mayor Kasim Reed this week to ask him to keep elephants away from Atlanta when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus opens its show at Philips Arena today.

From the AJC story:

Captive Animals Rescue and Enforcement wrote a letter to Reed dated Wednesday with the request. They say the elephant ran amok during a pre-show last week in Columbia, S.C. and endangered about 100 spectators. The organization wrote it “strongly suspect that she was trying to escape from the abuse that commonly takes place backstage at circuses.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is similarly concerned.

In the letter, they pointed out an incident that occurred Feb. 6 in Columbia, S.C., when an elephant in Ringling Bros.’ “Zing, Zang, Zoom” show took a wrong turn and knocked down the arena’s prop door. (”Zing, Zang, Zoom” is the show opening in Atlanta today.)

From the Columbia State newspaper:

About 100 spectators on the floor watching the pre-show saw the elephant break through the door toward them and rumble around the performance area, just a few feet away. Most people scurried away quickly, while others thought it was part of the show and stayed put.

No one was hurt in the incident, and the female elephant was quickly enticed back to where she was supposed to be, Drake said.

PETA had recently placed a statue to protest circus elephants in Woodruff Park, too.

Should elephants perform in circuses?

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This question comes up every time the circus comes to town. (There are three circuses in Atlanta this month. Two of them, Ringling and UniverSoul, have elephants and other exotic animals. Big Apple Circus does not.) The debate isn’t limited to elephants, but they’re the apex of it, perhaps because they are so smart, so social and so unusually magnificent. An elephant in the room, literally, is an 8,000 pound signal that you’re experiencing something unique.

“Zing, Zang, Zoom” includes 11 Asian elephants. When I talked with ringmaster Alex Ramon, a relative circus newbie, he said his up-close look at their lives showed him that they know they’re in show business, and they’re used to being pampered: “In order for them to perform this many shows, they can’t be sick, there can’t be malnutrition. I was shocked how well they were taken care of. Ringling Bros. has the money to take care of their animals. … If it’s your personal feeling that animals shouldn’t be performing, that’s your feeling, but that has nothing to do with the care. The care for the elephants is top of the line.”

The circus thrilled me as a kid. I loved the elephants, and the trapeze artists, the horses and the cotton candy. For a 4-year-old, that day held no shortage of spectacle. When I remember it now, I remember joy.

I have clearer memories of Wanda and Winky, the elephants at the Detroit Zoo. White painted elephant tracks on the asphalt led to the exhibit. Their huge habitat was in clear view of visitors, and they were the highlight of many visits over many years.

My most recent elephant experience was in 2008, when I spent several hours in and around the elephant habitat at Zoo Atlanta, detailing how they baby-proofed for a calf they expected to be born in 2009.

Here’s how those stories end:

The Detroit Zoo moved its elephants to a refuge in California in 2005, and has no plans to replace them. It was a proactive decision,  and they offer a  thoughtful, detailed explanation of why they will no longer keep elephants. It comes down to this: even with  modern husbandry techniques that doesn’t involve chains or hooks, and plenty of research into a new habitat, they don’t feel they can provide what Asian elephants need to be healthy and happy. Wanda still lives in California. Winky was euthanized in 2008 at age 56.

Dottie, the pregnant African elephant at Zoo Atlanta, died suddenly in 2008 during a bout of acute pneumonia. She was 26, and in the third trimester of her pregnancy. Elephants Tara and Kelly remain at the zoo.

I’ve never before tallied up the elephants I’ve spent hours and days with, but even as I’m typing this, their fates weigh on me. I understand that it’s amazing to see such larger-than-life creatures in your city, in the heart of such spectacle. I just don’t think I can find joy in it anymore.

What do you think? Should elephants be a part of the circus? Should Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed or other leaders weigh in on elephant appearances in the city? Why or why not?

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87 comments Add your comment


February 12th, 2010
12:51 pm

I suppose that I can safely say I see both sides of the coin. I love the circus, I always have since childhood. I love seeing the human acts as well as the animal performers. I do not in any way condone the unethical treatment of an animal…or human for that matter. That said…I believe that there are two sides to every story. PETA generally, and I am judging them by what I see and read… thrives on sensationalism. I believe in their core values, but their tactics at times make them no better than the organizations and individuals that they target. Performing animals have been a staple of the circus since the 1800’s and perhaps even before then. I see no problem with them continuing to perform along with dogs, goats, tigers, lions or any other animal for that matter…as long as they are treated well and taken care of. I would much rather see them in a circus than to be hunted down and slaughtered for tusks, or what have you. Let me reiterate, there are two sides to every coin Ringling has been accused of ill treatment, and PETA’s tactics leave a lot to be desired. Before people jump on any bandwagon…do your research and check all of the facts. It seems these days that people are just so quick to jump up on a soapbox. I call your attention to the recent lawsuit brought against Ringling Bros, that was found in favor of Ringling…not to say that abuse has not happened, but the plaintiff was clearly paid by animal activist groups and after all of the hoo ha, could not produce enough evidence from any stand point to convict Ringling.

Rectal Bleeding

February 12th, 2010
12:36 pm

I have the internet if I want to see an elephant, or whale shark, or any large mammal. I know a lot of people that are animal fanatics, but have no problem going to the circus, zoo or aquarium. The larger animals should not be confined for human entertainment. It’s cruel and unhealthy for that animals.

Seriously, what person thinks this is a good idea to keep large mammals captive?


February 12th, 2010
12:34 pm

Of course they sshouldn’t be in a circus. Dolphins and whales shouldn’t be in tanks at amusement parks.

The only time its acceptible to house wild animals is when their survival depends on it.

Its one thing if the animal’s natural habitat can be immitated. Its another to lock a bear in a small cage for slack jawed yokels to pay a nickel to see.

about time

February 12th, 2010
12:15 pm

PETA is not a dirty word. The organization is done much to improve the lives of animals. I’m a big fan of the organization. Back to the Elephants. Elephants do not belong in the circus. Imagine your child being taken from you at a very young age and hauled city to city to stand infront of screaming crowds. it’s sick.

sane jane

February 12th, 2010
12:05 pm

You and me both, Snow. One more thing we both have in common with elephants in captivity: working for peanuts.


February 12th, 2010
11:48 am

“Anybody who thinks elephants in the circus is great fun should spend a part of their life in a cage and be forced to perform for others’ amusement.”

I do it five days a week. It’s called a cubicle and I perform tricks for my manager.

sane jane

February 12th, 2010
11:38 am

Well said, OL. I’m not a PETA person either, but this just seems unnecessarily cruel.

I don’t think we’re anthropomorphizing them, either – captive elephants truly do look sad.

Every sentient being knows when it’s free and when it’s captive. Patriots should always be on the side of freedom.


February 12th, 2010
11:32 am

First off I’m no fan of PETA, but I think the days of using captive elephants for the circus are long past their expiration date. It’s not the 1800’s anymore, and while technology and science have given us the tools to determine what an elephants diet should consist of and how to properly care for them, you can’t replicate their native habitat enough while parading them around from city-to-city. Even the ones at Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort just stand there and sway, which many vets believe is a sign of boredom. On top of that, they just LOOK unhappy. I think we have enough forms of entertainment these days that chaining elephants to anchors and whipping them into positions that they would not naturally do is too far out-of-date.

sane jane

February 12th, 2010
11:30 am

what an obnoxious and racist thing to say, Unimpressed.

Not to mention completely needless, unwarranted and irrelevant to this story.

I’m embarrassed to be on the same side of this issue with you.

sane jane

February 12th, 2010
11:28 am

I won’t make assumptions about their care and feeding, but every time I see an elephant in captivity go crazy and start stomping its handlers, I’m usually rooting for the elephant.

Anybody who thinks elephants in the circus is great fun should spend a part of their life in a cage and be forced to perform for others’ amusement.