It's human nature to recall in vivid detail what you were doing when shocking news broke. I was at my kitchen sink, with a small television on the counter broadcasting the news, when the story broke that Tyke, an elephant used in a traveling circus, had been gunned down on the streets of Honolulu, Hawaii. A full glass of water shattered on my floor as I watched the video footage in horror. It was August 20, 1994.
Police pumped 86 bullets into Tyke. This screaming elephant, covered with blood, her eyes the size of dinner plates, died in abject terror and agonizing pain. Why?
Despite the vast amount of empirical evidence of elephants' intelligence and emotional complexity uncovered in the last 20 years, circuses still exploit these animals as if they were nothing more than wind-up toys. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus forcibly removes baby elephants from their frantic mothers, ties them down with ropes by all four legs, threatens them with bullhooks and shocks them with electric prods to break their spirits and make them perform tricks.
Conditioned from infancy to obey commands or face the painful consequences, these dejected youngsters go through their days with no hope, no relief and no joy. Elephants would never perform grotesquely atypical types of behavior such as headstands on command without the constant threat of punishment.
Elephants who have been captured from Asia and Africa are not uncommon here in the U.S. About half of the elephants used by Ringling, for example, were snatched from the wild and will never set foot in it again.
Elephants truly never do forget. Their memories are extraordinary. Elephants who were torn away from their homes and families must spend the interminable hours during which they plod in circles giving rides, pace back and forth in zoo displays or perform in circus shows dreaming of the vast savannas and lush jungles left behind. But they will never again experience the culture and challenges of their rightful homelands. Their lives consist of loneliness and pain, bullhooks and chains.
And being born in captivity doesn't fool elephants into believing that that's where they belong they know they're missing everything that's critical to who they are. Genetic imperatives don't disappear just because an animal isn't where he or she is supposed to be. Nearly all captive elephants develop neurotic behavior, such as constantly swaying or bobbing their heads in a futile attempt to cope. Instead of walking many miles every day, seeking out friends and visiting favorite watering holes, elephants in circuses are chained by the leg, barely able to take a single step forward or back. Most die far short of their expected life spans.
Those who want to pay homage to Tyke and all the elephants who have suffered and died in captivity will continue to turn their backs on animal circuses and other elephant exploiters.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jennifer O'Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org. Information about PETA's funding may be found at http://www.peta.org/about/numbers.asp.
This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.
(c) 2014, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Distributed by MCT Information Services
The tragedy of circus elephants continues
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