Before Internet Cats, There Were Circus Elephants

The pachyderms, which are being phased out of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey acts, were among the world's first animal celebrities.


Before Grumpy Cat's sullen mug captured the hearts and Facebook timelines of the masses, the world fell in love with a different four-legged creature. He was an African elephant named Jumbo ("jumbo" became a slang word for "big" in part because of the creature's size), and he's considered the first international animal celebrity. Jumbo garnered global attention at the London Zoo before being purchased by P.T. Barnum and brought to America to perform in his circus as the perfect Big-Tent draw. He was, after all, the largest captured elephant at the time, and Barnum and Bailey's superlative-obsessed advertising promised audiences nothing less than the spectacle of a lifetime: The Biggest Brute That Breathes. The Mighty Lord of All Beasts. Greatest Show on Earth!

But by 2018, the long and troubled history of circus elephants in America will be essentially over. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's (the two companies were united in a merger in 1919) said Thursday that it would be ending the use of elephants in shows because customers were no longer "comfortable" with the tradition. The retirement of elephant acts caps off an intense campaign by animal-rights advocates, who've leveled cruelty charges against the circus for decades. But it also marks the end of a legacy that started in the 19th century with Jumbo: that of the commercialized animal superstar. Though the circumstances surrounding their respective rises to fame couldn't be more different, Jumbo's successors are everywhere today, mostly in feline form: Lil Bub. Princess Monster Truck. Henri Le Chat Noir.

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?).

Compare this level of familiarity and delight with one circus poster touting the tusk-less Jumbo:

THE LARGEST LIVING BEAST. The children's mute friend on whose broad back the royal children and people of all classes have ridden. His fame is not limited to a continent, and he is the most universal favorite alive.

Where this presumption of universal favoritism (echoed in now-cliched talk about how the Internet loves cats) leads, an opportunity to make money follows. Amid widespread outrage over Jumbo's $10,000 sale to Barnum in 1882, British advertisers harnessed Jumbo's likeness to sell everything from children’s laxatives to furniture to clothing; the craze was dubbed "Jumbomania." It's safe to assume Grumpy Cat's cute/crotchety visage has been at least somewhat lucrative for her owner. But the fact remains that Internet cat-dom is a far more accessible and decentralized (if not less strategic) phenomenon than the circus.

Fortunately, there's no longer much of a modern need for institutions like circuses to bring people live animal entertainment, with one notable exception: zoos. In a more environmentally conscious age, zoos are a safe bet for consumers concerned about the treatment of exotic animals and endangered species. But they've also learned their lessons from the cases of Jumbo and Tardar Sauce. When it comes to stoking the public's appetite for its baby giant panda Bao Bao, the Smithsonian's National Zoo apes some of the "step-right-up" promotional style of circuses, and it lets the Internet do the rest.