City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

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
3:13 pm

It is cruel to keep an animal in captivity, away from it’s natural environment, contact w/members of their own species. I have NEVER visited to Atlanta Aquarium, have no plans to visit ever…to do so would be endorsing this type unnatural bondage.


February 12th, 2010
2:56 pm

Elephants are too intelligent and emotional for the lifestyle that comes along with being in the circus! I mean, come on, do you really believe they enjoy being overworked, and traveling in trucks down the interstate? I do not!


February 12th, 2010
2:54 pm

Would you want to see a Tasmanian Tiger in the circus? The circus goes to many towns that don’t have zoos. You can’t capture the grandeur of a elephant in a picture, or on the internet. A elephant would bite it’s controller like a dog would, but they aren’t built that way.


February 12th, 2010
2:17 pm

Ringling Brothers Circus has a documented history of animal cruelty towards animals. Go to Google, put in Ringling Brothers Circus and USDA violations. The have paid thousands of dollars in fines. There are numerous videos available of “trainers” beating elephants , some up to 30 minutes while they scream in agony in their leg chains. Great family fun? Think twice. Educate yourself, make the right choices afterwards.

Old Monk

February 12th, 2010
1:41 pm

The problem may not be how they are cared for at the circus,its more about how the babies are separated from their mothers and tortured under training. Elephants and many other animals are intelligent and the Mother literally cries when this happens. the baby can be heard pining for its Mother for months.
Further, they are social animals that live in a herd. They can never be happy without all their companions. Circus owners greed has reduced them to the lowest level of decency as this is done not for food, but for pure wealth and nothing else.

Elephant Lover

February 12th, 2010
1:30 pm

The circus has always made me incredibly uncomfortable. I remember being nervous and frightened when I was younger and went with my family. Now that I’m older, I understand a little bit more what makes me feel so uncomfortable– the atmosphere, the lighting (or lack thereof), and the way those animals live.

I absolutely love seeing animals, and I think that people getting to interact with wild and exotic animals is important to educational and conservation efforts.

But zoos that do not do their best to imitate the animals’ natural habitats aren’t widely accepted anymore– we don’t want to see gorillas and tigers in iron cages barely large enough for them to turn around. So why is it acceptable to see them that way in the circus?


February 12th, 2010
1:26 pm

Animals are NOT here for our entertainment. It’s arrogant of humans to believe otherwise. Zoos (present day) are at least trying to make habitats a little more hospitable for their animals, but circuses are simply barbaric. Circque du Soleil (and no, not Cavallia) would be the only circus this human would consider going to.
And yes, I am a vegetarian and don’t wear leather products. My hypocrisy is real, though, like most people I take medicines and I’m sure I buy products that have been tested on animals. But I try to at least inform people of the brutality of humans who use animals primarily for our entertainment (ex, bullfighting, circuses). It’s the best I can do for now.


February 12th, 2010
1:10 pm

Great points B-Man & Josh!


February 12th, 2010
1:05 pm

I have to say I never gave it much thought until reading this article and everyone’s comments… but I do look forward to seeing the elephants at the circus!

Part of that desire is because I really do LOVE elephants… I can stand and watch them all day at the zoo…and my pulse quickens at the sight of their tricks at the circus… and I’m sorry, seeing them on the Internet isn’t quite the same… they are amazing animals.

After reading the comments, I can certainly understand the points about holding such a large animal captive and carting it around from city to city (I’m sure that wears on the people that have a choice in the matter), and also understand the points about not being able to recreate their natural habitat… but, as it was pointed out… doesn’t EVERY “animal” live in some form of captivity that isn’t a “natural” habitat…

I guess my point is, aren’t there bigger (no pun intended) issues for the Mayor to focus on that impact the lives of humans…leave this battle to the people that attend the circus…just my opinion.


February 12th, 2010
12:52 pm

There’s not a lot of places in the wild for elephants these days. The circus is another potential environment that allows them to exist with humans. Few of us get a free ride in life, so the fact that they have to perform isn’t in itself a bad thing.

A circus that treats the animals total well being and not just as a product to sell are fine with me. But they need to be very closely regulated and watched.