Why elephants aren't made for the circus

Story highlights

  • Feld Entertainment plans to retire elephants from its circuses
  • Pamela Burns: We congratulate the company for its decision to relocate elephants

Pamela Burns is president and CEO of the Hawaiian Humane Society. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)After enduring about four days at sea under stressful conditions, Tyke, an African elephant, escaped during a circus performance, crushing her trainer to death and injuring dozens of others while storming through the streets of Honolulu. Tyke suffered a slow and painful death after being hit by a barrage of bullets fired by police officers.

That incident happened 20 years ago, but the welcome announcement last week by Feld Entertainment -- parent company to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus -- that it plans to retire elephants from its circuses by 2018 is a reminder of how that controversy lingers.
In analyzing the horrific experience involving Tyke, it was reported that the elephant had been rebellious before she arrived on our shores, and she is said to have had a history of acting out and being unpredictable. And though she was not submissive and was difficult to train, her owners sent her to Honolulu anyway.
    Sadly, performing animals in circuses and traveling shows are too often subjected to inhumane conditions, especially in their training. Reward-based training takes time and patience, which are things that many circus trainers do not have. Instead, these trainers frequently resort to other inhumane means, involving beating the animals, using electrical prods, depriving them of food, chaining them and other brutal methods to force the animals into submission. Following this sort of brutal training, the animals may appear tame, but they are still wild and their original wild instincts will appear if provoked.
    Meanwhile, animals that are no longer useful to the circus or traveling shows due to age or temperament may be given away or sold to other less reputable organizations. They lack proper veterinary care, and what little quality of life they did have is diminished further. The welfare of the animal is not taken into account. Rather than being treated as a commodity by the owner, animals should be protected and well cared for.
    Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has said it prides itself on providing a healthy environment for animals. Yet whatever provisions they may make, the reality is that circuses are particularly unsuited to meet the unique needs of elephants.
    These extremely intelligent animals live in large family groups when in the wild, and they form close social ties with other elephants. But the circus environment keeps them isolated and provides little to no interaction with their own species. Their herd-like behavior is ignored when they are being trained to perform. These very social animals, simply put, should not be living in solitary confinement.
    Animal welfare advocates have often been criticized as being against "fun." We are told that circuses and traveling shows are about education. But what could one possibly learn about animals from watching these shows? Observing wild animals perform unnatural tricks while dancing in tutus only teaches the public that the sole purpose of animals is our entertainment. Are these really the values we want our children to learn?
    Wildlife sanctuaries and accredited zoos should exist for conservation, preservation and propagation of species and for public education. This is where learning should occur. Wild animals should be permitted to exist undisturbed in their natural environments, and when they must be confined, it should be in a natural setting consistent with their physical and behavioral needs. This is the proper setting for education and study.
    Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has come a long way in its thinking, and for that we congratulate the company for its decision to move the elephants to its sanctuary in Florida. Rather than fighting the many cities and counties that have taken steps to pass anti-circus and anti-elephant ordinances, the company instead is putting its resources toward the study and protection of elephants.
    With this step, we look forward to the day that it, and other circuses, phase out all wild animals, including the lions and tigers that also are featured in their shows. After all, wild and exotic animals are not meant to entertain us.
    The Hawaiian Humane Society feels strongly about the humane treatment of all animals, whether domesticated or wild. Our organization, like others in the animal welfare movement, seeks to prevent any practice that might produce pain, stress, injury or suffering to any animal. This is an important part of creating a more humane society -- for people and all animals.