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Dear Mr. President: Remember the elephants

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By Ingrid E. Newkirk

Britain’s last remaining “circus elephant,” Annie, recently packed her trunk and went to live her final years on hundreds of acres of rolling lawns on a country estate. Her retirement came after the release of undercover video footage showing that circus workers kicked and thrashed her and jabbed her in the face with a pitchfork. Annie is almost 60 years old and has spent her life in a circus, which, for elephants, means “in chains.” The look on her face as she was forced to pose with the circus owner is enough to break any kind person’s heart.

Meanwhile, Ringling Bros. is still dragging its “beast wagons” around the U.S. Anyone who cares about animals should stay away from this, the “Saddest Show on Earth.”

Three elephants who are traveling with Ringling, Karen, Nicole and Sara, suffer from what veterinarians say is chronic lameness and other problems, including arthritis, cracked toenails, which make putting weight on their feet painful, and scarring on their chins, the result of being struck many times by bullhooks—weapons resembling fireplace pokers with a metal hook at one end. Forty-two-year-old Karen also has a type of tuberculosis that is communicable to humans. She was banned from entering Tennessee earlier this year, but other states have failed to take similar action, putting children at risk and surely exacerbating the stress on Karen’s immune system. 

Pop star Pink has written to President Obama, urging him to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to act to stop circus cruelty. She included with her letter a copy of the 16-page complaint that PETA has filed with the USDA Office of General Counsel (OGC) detailing three cases of egregious animal abuse by Ringling.

The incidents are shocking. Riccardo, an 8-month-old baby elephant, had to be euthanized after breaking both his legs while being put through a rigorous “training” regimen. Clyde, a lion, baked to death in a boxcar when Ringling refused to stop the train—simply because it was running late—to cool him off and give him water during a long journey through the Mojave Desert. And Angelica, another elephant, was beaten by one of her handlers, despite the fact that she was chained and could not move.

These are all violations of federal law and need to be acted upon. In 2006, the USDA assured then-Sen. Obama, who had contacted the agency on behalf of his constituents, that if violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) were found, prosecution would follow. The agency’s own investigators found AWA violations and recommended enforcement action, but nothing happened.

In the case of Riccardo, Ringling employees were quick to say that the baby pachyderm broke his legs while playing and that he hadn’t begun training, although it was later revealed in a lawsuit over beatings inflicted with bullhooks that Riccardo had in fact been undergoing a training program and had had ropes tied to his legs and trunk when he fell. In the case of Clyde, a former Ringling lion handler described in an affidavit how Ringling tried to deceive the USDA by installing a sprinkler system inside the boxcar in which Clyde perished after the fact. According to USDA investigators, Ringling also refused to hand over crucial evidence, even after receiving a subpoena. 

There is much more, but the key issue is whether our new OGC General Counsel Ramona E. Romero will do the right thing. As Pink points out, it is high time that the USDA made good on its promise to protect animals used and abused under the big top. Elephants may be the symbol of the Republican Party, but people of goodwill on both sides of the aisle should stick up for these sorely abused animals.

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 1536 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036;


Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

April 28, 2011 at 5:00 pm

The saddest show on Earth

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By Ingrid E. Newkirk

Elephants have the largest brains of any mammal on the face of the Earth. They are creative, altruistic and kind. They use tools to sweep paths and even to draw pictures in the dirt and scratch themselves in inaccessible places, and they communicate subsonically at frequencies so low that humans cannot detect them without sophisticated equipment. Imagine, then, what it must be like for them to be told what to do, courtesy of a bullhook—a rod resembling a fireplace poker with a sharp metal hook on the end—at every moment of their lives. Yet this is what life is like for elephants used in circuses, who are constantly beaten and kept chained, sometimes for days at a time.

It takes a lot to get circusgoers to see beyond the headdresses and glitter to that metal-tipped bullhook sinking into an elephant’s soft flesh behind her ears and knees. But I hope that PETA’s new undercover investigation of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will help open some eyes.

PETA’s investigator caught Ringling employees digging sharp metal bullhooks into the sensitive skin behind elephants’ knees and under their trunks. Eight employees—including an animal superintendent and a head elephant trainer—used bullhooks and other objects to strike elephants on the head, ears and trunk. Employees whipped elephants and a tiger, including on or near the face. One elephant, Tonka, repeatedly exhibited signs of severe psychological stress but was nevertheless forced to perform night after night. The footage can be seen at

All of this was going on while Ringling was already on trial in a federal court in Washington, D.C., answering charges that its elephant-handling practices violate the federal Endangered Species Act.

In their natural homes, elephants live for more than 70 years; their average life span in captivity is just 14 years. Because of stress, travel in boxcars and time spent stabled in damp basements, many captive elephants have arthritis, lame legs and tuberculosis.

Left to their own devices in their homelands, elephants are highly social beings who enjoy extended family relationships. Aunts babysit, mothers teach junior life skills such as how to use different kinds of leaves and mud to ward off sunburn and insect bites, babies play together under watchful eyes, lovemaking is gentle and complex and elephant relatives mourn their dead.

In captivity, elephants are deprived of all these experiences. Life under the big top means “pay attention to your trainers, feel the bite of their implements in your flesh, don’t stumble or falter even if you feel tired or ill, obey, obey, obey.” It means leg chains between acts, the loss of all comfort and warmth from your father and mother and no long-term friends.

Behaviorists tell us that elephants can and do cry from the loss of social interaction and from physical abuse. Yes, cry. If you wonder how these magnificent beings keep from going mad—waiting in line night after night, eyes riveted on the person with the metal hook, ready to circle to the music in their beaded headdresses—perhaps the answer is, they don’t. PETA’s investigator at Ringling documented stereotypic behavior, which is typically seen in animals who are suffering from extreme stress caused by a lack of anything to do, the inability to move around, severe frustration and desolation.

Sometimes, elephants stop behaving like wind-up toys and crush the bones and breath out of a keeper, make a break for it, go berserk or run amok. But most simply endure. Their spirits were broken during their capture and, later, God help them, when they were trained for the ring. Otherwise, they would all use their immense strength to fight back against the human hand of tyranny. They would refuse to be kept chained between performances like coats on a rack, refuse to be backed up ramps into railroad cars and trailers like so many cars being parked out of the way.

Ringling and other circuses have made it clear that they have no intention of stopping their abusive practices. And the law—which provides minimal requirements for cage size and little else—does not protect animals in circuses. It’s up to us to say “enough is enough.”

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; Her latest book is The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights.

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

July 23, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Posted in circuses

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