Bill making circus safer for elephants a big flop on prime issue
New Haven Register; Date: 2007 Mar 21; Section: News; Page Number: 6A
RECENTLY, lawmakers in our state proposed a bill "to eliminate the mistreatment of captive elephants." Given the name of the group I lead, Friends of Animals, one might think I support the proposal. I don't. The bill lacks the essential understanding that captivity is mistreatment.
As a lifelong Connecticut resident, a mother and an advocate for our planet and its residents, I have come to believe elephants weren't put here to entertain us.
It took time to reach this conclusion. In childhood, it didn't occur to me to find anything amiss with those bright, cheery posters that would appear in town heralding the arrival of the circus, and especially these wondrous, 3-ton animals with their huge trunks and marvelous, flapping ears.
I thought the elephants' trunks were there to grab tails of other elephants as they marched about the ring in formation. I didn't know that elephants have trunks so they might carefully pick up a marble-sized morsel of fruit, or grasp the highest leaves, or use them for warning, greeting and caressing one another.
I didn't know those tremendous ears weren't made to delight me and other children, but to disperse the heat of the elephants' savanna homelands, and to detect the low frequency sounds elephants use to communicate with others in their groups from a mile or more away.
I have had the good fortune to observe African elephants in their territories. Today, this experience is available to all our children, from a respectful distance, through the Internet. Once we know what elephants' real lives are like, it's not hard to feel that the time has long passed for circuses to free them. If we respect them, we will let them experience their lives fully. We could never gaze at them in a circus ring without sensing their profound loss.
Ringling Bros. now rears a herd of captive elephants. Some people say this has to do with preserving the species. But, the young will be taken away from their parents, and will never learn the ways of their species. They will never know freedom - even males, virtually always deemed too dangerous for circuses.
Daphne Sheldrick, who has over 50 years experience with elephants and in 2005 was named by the Smithsonian Magazine as one of 35 people worldwide who have made a difference in wildlife conservation, has stated, "I can categorically say that elephants should not be confined in captivity, no matter how attractive the facilities may appear to us humans." Understanding the merits of such views, Britain recently committed to ban the custom of using elephants in circuses. We are witnessing a gradual, international phase-out of a much-debated practice, one that began with the roving menageries of the late 18th century and the elephant street processions of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In our country, such processions still go on. Connecticut doesn't have to be a part of that.
When Ringling Bros. came to Bridgeport last October, a coalition of advocates, including Friends of Animals, watched the elephants beside the arena as they swayed back and forth. One elephant repeatedly lifted and dropped the chain on her leg. And as people began to arrive for the show, we asked them to do something different in the future: Choose entertainment offered by willing, human participants. The options are many: dancing, concerts, kite-making and flying festivals - or acrobatic circuses such
as Cirque du Soleil.
From alligators to zebras, lions and tigers and bears, countless animals have been removed from their habitats for circuses. The disrespect we've shown these animals over the centuries surely correlates with the loss of their habitats. We have valued them primarily for their parts, such as ivory, or for the pleasure they bring to us in zoos and circuses. Preserving the areas in which they could live freely has not been foremost in our decisions, because we've seen them on our terms, not theirs.
I ask Connecticut residents who care about the well-being of animals to reject allowances for breeding them into captivity and using them in circuses, no matter what improvements are suggested for the conditions of those circuses, or which instruments and techniques are legally allowed to keep them in place or train them.
For those elephants already living, who can never enjoy the savannas and the forests of their homelands, the best we can do is to move them into respectful, private sanctuaries and support the dedicated people who look after them.
Meanwhile, the best thing for our lawmakers to do is to invite only animal-free circuses to town. Let us not try to make the captivity and use of elephants palatable by banning certain kinds of hooks or certain lengths of chains. Let's just say no.
Priscilla Feral is president of Darien, CT-based Friends of Animals. Founded in 1957, Friends of Animals advocates for the right of animals to live free according to their own terms.