Should elephants be banned from circuses?

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Photo by Ted Abbott

Today marks the start of an historic animal abuse case brought against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus by three animal-welfare groups and a former circus employee.

The ASPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals (a partner of the Humane Society of the U.S.) and former Ringling Bros. employee Tom Rider charge that Ringling Bros. violated the Endangered Species Act by chaining its elephants
for prolonged periods and training them with bull hooks, among other abuses.

I won’t go into the details of the case, but Ringling Bros. has started its own Web site about the trial, where you can view a PDF of the complaint. You can also click on the names of the animal-welfare groups above to see their press releases about the case, or read a news story here or here.

But I’m interested in a comment by a lawyer for Ringling Bros.’ parent company, who said: “Animal special-interest groups are distorting the facts by making
false allegations about the treatment of Ringling Bros. elephants as
part of a long-running crusade to eliminate animals from circuses, zoos
and wildlife parks.”

Leaving aside the question of zoos and wildlife parks, should elephants and other animals be banned from use in circuses?

I think yes. No matter how well a performing animal is treated (and Ringling Bros. has a section of its Web site dedicated to arguing that they take great care of their animals), it’s inherently inhumane to take an undomesticated animal out of its natural environment and compel it to do anything other than what is instinctive.

The main argument I’ve heard for using wild animals in entertainment is that it’s somehow an enriching experience for children.

But I think a child who has grown up in a safe and loving home and given a challenging and engaging education and lots of time to play with other kids will do just fine without ever seeing an elephant anywhere other than on Wild Kingdom.

And to tell a child that a sentient being has been deprived of its natural life for the child’s entertainment — what kind of message is that?

And finally, if you want a child to see wild animals, let him observe them in their natural environments. I live in Brooklyn, not exactly the wildlife capital of the world, but I can go across the street to Prospect Park and see swans, ducks, geese, egrets, cormorants, turtles, squirrels, chipmunks, frogs, possums and more. Maybe not terribly exotic — but all living their natural lives, which I think is much more interesting than a sad, lonely animal in captivity.

Previous entries:

NY Times stands up for chimps

New (non-companion) animal arrivals