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How to Save Circus Elephants

What should happen to elephants in the circus?


Ringling Elephants
Joe Raedle / Getty Images


The 600 or so performing elephants in this country could be retired to zoos that truly have their interests at heart or the elephant sanctuaries in the United States. One is run by the Performing Animal Welfare Society in California. another is The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. In these sanctuaries (both over 2,500 acres in size) elephants have the room and the social interaction required to live as they evolved. The elephants are allowed to roam the vast countryside, form social groups, come together in healing and community and even form what will become families. Observing elephants in the wild or even in proper elephant sanctuaries is vastly different from seeing them in circuses, covered in spangles and placards while performing tricks. Of course, one cannot and should not vilify all circus animal handlers; likely, many of them truly feel for the creatures in their care. However, the logic seems clear: as long as there is a chance that any elephant might one day suffer a fate such as Stoney, Tyke, or Janet, they should not be confined or used in performance situations. This is not tossing baby and bathwater entire; it is recognition of the elephant's need to coexist with other elephants in vast tracks of land with adequate space, water, social connection, and food.

Too much has been theorized regarding what separates humans from animals. Their intelligence level may be below human levels. Science does not yet know if they actually use a language that communicates linguistic packets of meaning. They do often seem to display instinctual proclivities and elephants may not possess human reason. These facts withstanding, it does not release humanity of its mandate of caring for the creatures and not negatively interfering with the structures of animal life and habit. It is not logical to do what one wishes with no consideration to other creatures less intelligent than we are. If it were so, then mentally retarded persons or human babies could be disposed of and used at will. Steiner says a commonsense approach is "to maintain that there are reasons for extending moral obligations toward animals that have nothing to do with whether or not animals are rational…if animals can suffer, then we have at least some moral obligations toward them" (144). The oft-quoted philosopher Jeremy Bentham has added much to the debate on what animals deserve moral consideration: "…the question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?" (Bentham 310).

Elephants can suffer. Elephants have suffered in performance situations in the past. They might be suffering in some circuses right this very minute. Please examine your choice to attend animal circuses and decide to do so only after conducting your own research. A decision to attend or not attend animal circuses should be an informed decision. And all of us should attempt to respect each other's decision, especially if they differ.

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