Yes, the idea that circus elephants are the spiritual ancestors of Internet cats throws into sharp relief the differences between the lives of Jumbo and Maru the Box Cat. Jumbo was a wild creature, subdued and exploited specifically for the purposes of for mass entertainment. Maru's whole (adorable) shtick hinges on the unassuming naturalism of his domestic life. Jumbo was a byproduct of Western imperialism; Maru was birthed by the Internet. Jumbo's existence was a declaration of man's power over nature. Maru, Buzzfeed has proclaimed, is "the greatest hope we have for world peace."
While cats live sheltered, conscience-friendly lives, the elephant's rise to prominence has always been inseparable from violence. The first circus elephant brought to the U.S., Old Bet was shot in 1816 by a boy who'd heard that her hide was bulletproof (another account says she was shot by a farmer appalled that people were paying money to see an animal). Similar mystery surrounds Jumbo's death: Some records indicated he was sick, and that the train crash that took his life was staged. (Both his and Old Bet's bodies were stuffed and later put on display.) Meanwhile another popular circus elephant, Topsy, was famously euthanized by public electrocution 1903, just two years after an elephant named Jumbo II survived an electrocution. And in 2011, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's circus was made to pay a record fine of $270,000 for animal welfare violations stemming from its treatment of elephants.
The awful subjugation of circus elephants paved the way for much more innocuous forms of animal antics as entertainment. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's taught Americans "how to become modern consumers of animal celebrity," according to historian Susan Nance, who recently spoke with my colleague Noah Gordon on the circus’ recent decision. “The genial circus elephant icon suggested to viewers that they could come to understand animals by paying to be entertained by them,” Nance wrote in her book Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus. Before the first circus elephant arrived in the U.S. at the end of the 18th century, the closest Americans had come to the mass consumption of animal entertainment was equestrian acts. But the circus elephant gave life to a new business model: “creating and selling portrayals of noted animals that flattered audience humor, visual interest, or morality."
One easy, albeit obvious, example: Disney's 1941 classic Dumbo. The most profitable picture of the decade for the studio, Dumbo contributed to the image of the gentle, accessible elephant. Notably, the film ends with Dumbo achieving immense fame, thanks to his wing-like ears, allowing him to be reunited with his mother and treated like a star. “Never did we expect to fall in love with an elephant,” wrote The New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther in his gushing review. Crowther's praise of the film starring the "precocious pachyderm" was so effusive, he had to defend his own sobriety. The critic recalled two favorite moments: the “hilarious business in which the elephants build themselves into a pyramid, groaning and wobbling atop one another in ponderous and perilous suspense” and a black, talking bird known as Jim Crow (because what's an early Disney movie without horrible racial tropes?).