You could often feel them before you could see or hear them — vibrations that felt like the lowest notes of a stupendous cathedral pipe organ, from elephants communicating with each other in rumblings too low to hear with the naked ear. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus herd was a sight, a line of 22 massive beasts swaying, flapping ears, and with wide sweeps of their trunks, always searching for dropped popcorn or candy wrappers.
It wasn’t an easy life for these animals, but then little about circus life is easy. For humans and animals alike, a circus is about work. Set up, practice, perform, tear down, travel, set up, practice, and practice some more. Circus life is hard, but nothing else has quite the same magic as a classic circus show; it mixes comedy, danger, beauty and wild animals in action, all experienced live. But Ringling Bros., which phased out elephant performances last year, will hold its final show Sunday night at Nassau Coliseum.
Today, we raise children and treat animals with more sensitivity than prior generations did. That’s a good thing. We should be preserving and protecting habitats, and stopping the poaching of elephants in the wild, not importing elephants for entertainment. Circuses will survive without them. “Nouveau cirque” shows are thriving without animals.
But if you have seen a circus with elephants, please don’t think you were supporting animal cruelty. You were watching highly valuable animals who were treated well and had strong bonds with caretakers. The perception of all circus elephants being beaten and leading lives of misery is not true. I worked in the circus for more than a decade, and spent a season as the dancing “elephant girl” in the Woodcock family elephant act. I never saw neglect or abuse, because it simply didn’t happen.
For one, the elephants were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece because Asian female elephants had become increasingly rare and expensive. Circuses prefer Asian female elephants to the unpredictable Asian males and elephants from Africa. No Asian elephants have been imported into the United States since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species agreement of 1975, and they are not often bred here. Governments agreed to ensure that trade in specimens of wild animals and plants would not threaten their survival. Circus herds have shrunk via attrition, and in the end, only a few trained elephants would have existed, even without animal rights activism.
Another reason is that after the 1960s, circus animal training moved to more humane methods and care. As concerns for animal welfare grew, the circus tried to evolve to meet the concerns. But it wasn’t enough.
They were still working animals, and there are animal-rights activists who believe it is wrong to have animals work in this day and age. It is true that with few exceptions, we don’t need trained animals in an advanced society. I respect those views, though I don’t agree. In places where elephants may live freely without human interference, I support having them live as nature intended. But for elephants whose fates are bound up with man, is it better for them to live lives of unchanging idleness in zoos and conservation centers? Do not all sentient beings feel value in being useful, in having work to do and doing it well? I believe intelligent animals gain a sense of purpose from completing their tasks.
The large circus elephant herd was vanishing anyway, but its end came sooner than I thought. This is progress, yet I feel sadness because something is being lost — experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of elephants thundering down the circus track. And for me, getting to ride an elephant and feel the breeze from her flapping ears was an honor and a privilege that few will ever get to have now.
Elizabeth Griffith was born and raised in Glen Head. She lives in Uganda with her husband and their two daughters.