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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?

For instant updates, follow @insideaccess on Twitter.

87 comments Add your comment


February 13th, 2010
5:05 pm

Elephants don’t belong in either zoos or circuses. Both venues have only confined captivity to offer. Elephants are used to living in matriarchal herds and walking miles per day to maintain their health. In circuses they are beaten and electrically shocked to get them to perform and to keep them under control. They are driven mad by this brutality and often go on rampages as a result which, in turn, creates tragedy for people as well as the elephants. Baby elephants are taken away from their mothers by Ringling and “broken” to reduce them to frightened little victims who will do anything they are ordered to do for fear they will be beaten. Anyone who patronizes Ringling’s circus is supporting this abuse. There is no getting around that fact. The people running this show should be criminally prosecuted for violating the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, the USDA has been bought off and our courts are full of cowardly judges.

The Nerd

February 13th, 2010
8:55 am

What are you guys thinking?! You know good and well that animals, including elephants are what makes circuses so great[in addition to a few other groups, including clowns]. And as for PETA, I’m a meat eater, and I’m damn proud of it!


February 13th, 2010
8:19 am

To the posters who still defend elephants in the circus – did you go to Google, type in Ringling Brothers Circus and USDA violations? Thought not. How about you go do that now, and then post your comments.

Eye's wide open

February 13th, 2010
8:12 am

Elephants and tigers can never be domesticated, and it is clear that Ringling can only train these Elephants by beating them with a bullhook starting at the age of two, and they won’t stop this practice because they make big money having them in there shows. But Parents you can stop this abuse now, just don’t take your families to the circus. If Ringling is the Greatest show on earth, they should be able to put on a good show without animals. “Animals make the Circus” if you will look at this website you will see what goes on under the big top when the audience isn’t there.

animals make the circus

February 13th, 2010
7:52 am

It is not about having animals in circus or not but about taking care of them. Animals make the circus more fun and a hit so please don’t go overboard like everything else. Keep it simple. Have fun but take care of animals too.

Eye's wide open

February 13th, 2010
7:15 am

Citizen MC, you remind me of a child who covers their eyes and says,”you can’t see me.” Just because you cover “Your Eyes” and refuse to look doesn’t mean this abuse doesn’t happen, the rest of us can see through this illusion that Ringling has created Because you don’t like Peta doesn’t mean that the evidence of Ringling beating and torturing these elephants is untrue. Apparently you haven’t read about or seen the pictures that Sammy Haddock who use to be a Ringling elephant trainer has revealed to the Public, if you had you would know how stupid your comments sound.
Elephant’s have been scientifically proven to be “human” in terms of intelligence, emotional family and friendship bonding, nurturing of one another, along with age progression, and expected life span.
So the Human equivalent to the life of a circus elephants is a Human infant growing up on death row in prison.
The most we can hope for when it comes to people like you is that you educate yourself before you open your mouth again.


February 13th, 2010
1:18 am

Animals are on this earth for the benefit of mankind. As long as the animals are cared for properly and not mistreated, then no free society should enact laws that restrict man’s inherent right to dominate creation for his enjoyment and benefit. PETA is an extremeist organization that advocates for animal rights contrary to common sense, human history, and man’s obvious preeminence over every aspect of the animal kingdom.


February 12th, 2010
11:53 pm

Thank you for bringing attention to this subject. I saw my first and only RIngling Bros circus when I was 21. I cried the entire time and immediately went back to my college apartment and wrote a letter to Ringling Bros. I not only expressed my disappointment about the inclusion of elephants in their silly act, but also the tigers, and dogs. The dogs ran around in circle in their cages like they were mentally ill (though Ringling claimed they were just so excited that’s why they continuously ran in circles). Tigers were also in cages and being forced to obey with the command of a whipping motion. It’s very pathetic.

I tell everybody my feelings about the circus when they tell me they are taking their kids and the reaction I typically receive is “but my kids like it”. I hate to burst parents’ bubbles, but the world doesn’t revolve around your kid. Go play ball with them outside or plant a garden with them and do something constructive. Please stop supporting the circus. The humans benefit (get money) from animal mistreatment, and I can’t believe the human race continues to allow this to happen.

Eye's wide open

February 12th, 2010
7:48 pm

This is Ringling Bros official statement when asked about the care their Elephants receive:
“Animals at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® are healthy and well cared for by a team of full-time veterinarians and an animal care staff that works to ensure that the animals have an enriching and safe environment. Protesters make false and distorted allegations about Ringling Bros.”
No one has said that Ringling Bros doesn’t feed their elephants, they have to if they want them to be able to perform in all those shows.
What most of us want to know is why you are beating the hell out of your elephants if they are like family to you?
I would like Ringling to explain these photos of baby elephants tied up with ropes with a bullhook shoved up against their bodies and what about the Hot Shot that they are using on a baby.
Human Equivalent to a circus elephants life is putting a human infant on death row.

Eric Vogel

February 12th, 2010
5:30 pm

Watch what this undercover PETA person finds out.

I did talk to an animal handler for the elephants and she claims all animals are treated humanly and all the animals love performing. She said she would not be there if they were mis-treated and they retire to a sanctuary when they are done performing. She is either lieing or RIngling has the wool pulled over her eyes.

The video is not too graphic. Humane elephant handlers shouldn’t be using picks to move them or tap or smack them if they do something wrong. And watch the un-easyness when they are pushed together tightly.