Trunk Show: A Circus Without Elephants

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey will no longer feature pachyderms in their performances, bringing about an end to one of the hallmarks of the American circus.

Gary Bogdon/AP

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced Thursday that they’re phasing out elephants from their shows, citing a “mood shift” among customers who "aren’t comfortable" with the use of the animals on tour. Various animal-rights groups have objected to the creatures' care and Mother Jones has highlighted the harsh treatment of the elephants, including the use of long, steel-tipped prods called "bullhooks" to control the creatures. The circus says the 13 elephants currently on tour will stop performing and move to its conservation center in Florida by 2018.

For more context on the announcement, I spoke to Dr. Susan Nance, an associate professor of U.S. history at the University of Guelph in Ontario and the author of Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus.

Noah Gordon: Were you surprised by the news?

Susan Nance: Well, yes, a little bit. Not because the mood shift doesn’t exist, but because Feld Entertainment [the circus's parent company] has been really stubborn. The fact that they still had a herd of elephants was one of the things that made the Ringling Brothers circus unique—in business and in the entertainment world. They had invested so much money in the traditional American-style circus, that I just thought as long they put bums in seats, as long as people keep paying, they would ignore the critics. Why should they have to answer to people who would never come to their show?

Gordon: The circus motto is “the show must go on”—where was the pressure to do this coming from? Was it animal-rights groups?

Nance: I think it was coming from the fact that many people don’t want to see elephants performing tricks anymore, so it must have affected ticket sales—although I don’t have the numbers. There was also an enormous amount of pressure coming from every animal-rights and animal-welfare organization you can think of, from the most mild to the most radical. Circuses just aren’t in a position to care for elephants. I wonder also if the declining elephant population in Africa and Asia—especially Africa, they’re in a huge crisis right now—led them to believe that a zoo is a better model than a circus. They’re keeping the elephants, they’re just not going to be in the show.

Gordon: You were referring to the crisis of people hunting elephants for ivory in Africa, and the effect that may have had?

Nance: Yes. It seems kind of unsympathetic to make an elephant do tricks when you know there’s not many left. I think a lot of people see it that way. They’re an endangered species now.

Gordon: Some local governments have passed anti-elephant or anti-elephant ordinances too. Did that likely play a role?

Nance: I think it must have. It must have kept them out of particular venues. Things that get banned and outlawed, like illegal gambling, are forms of entertainment that have a bad reputation. It wasn’t good for the Ringling brand to be associated with these kinds of city by-laws. And now that’s all off the table.

Gordon: What is about an elephant’s physical or mental capabilities that make having to perform so harrowing for them?

Nance: They’re a lot like people in some ways. There are obviously many immense differences, but there’s more and more research showing that they have a broad emotional range. They’re very, very complex, they’re family oriented, and when they don’t live in groups of their own choosing. There are measurable psychological effects, same as if you put a person in prison. The routines of being in a prison, and being forced to be close to people you don’t know that well or don’t like, the stress—your physical health suffers and your mental health suffers. It’s the same situation for elephants: They can do it; some of them fare better than others, but it is very hard work for them. I think one of the things that demonstrates this is that they never breed in the circus. They’re just not interested in making babies! And they don’t do it very well in zoos either. It shows that human beings are not very good at elephant captivity yet. We’re getting better, but when their numbers are declining so steeply, it just seems foolish not to listen to what the elephants are saying about what they need.

Gordon: Could you tell us a bit about the history of elephants as circus animals? When did the first elephants come to America?

Nance: The first one came in 1795. She was a baby, she came out of the port in Calcutta and came to the United States as part of a travelling exhibition. She only lasted a few years. We suspect she probably just died because she was too young to be away from other elephants. All elephants fare badly on their own, and she was just a baby. Thereafter, there was a period of years where people were bringing over baby elephants. You could walk them around; up and down the East Coast people would go to see them in a barn and pay a nickel or whatever it was. By the late 19th century, the full-blown Ringling Brothers-style circus started to emerge—Ringlings didn’t exist yet but Barnum and Bailey was one of the big ones. There were huge American circus companies that would have herds of 20 or sometimes 30 elephants on a single show. This was really a uniquely American invention in the global history of circus as an art form. Before that, circuses were really more of a Cirque de Soleil style, where there’s mostly just human acrobats, or people might’ve had trained dogs or done trick-riding on horses, or a monkey in a cage, but that was the extent of the animal acts.

Gordon: And what type of things were elephants forced to do in most shows?

Nance: In the early days they just did simple things like taking food from people’s pockets with their trunks. It was more of an animal feeding show. Later on, people trained them to stand on their hind legs, to stand on a ball, to sit in a costume at a table and take part in a skit where a clown made jokes. In one trick an elephant would walk over his trainer and not crush the trainer. People liked that one—a lot of these tricks turned on the contrast between the elephant’s immense power and the fact that the animal wasn’t using it to hurt anyone. People believed that elephants were very sagacious and judicious in the use of their power, that they loved human beings and understood human motives, and they would perform tricks to show how much they loved their trainer. It was not true!

Gordon: The circus will continue to use other animals, like camels, in its act. Do you think we’ll see a push to get other animals out of the ring as well?

Nance: It depends what it is. If they’ve got big cats, lions, tigers, that might be the case. In terms of ungulates like camels and horses … we still have horse racing, we still have rodeos, we see horses in movies … people can more easily digest the idea of a horse or a camel or something with hooves performing for us. So I’m not sure if that’s going to change anytime soon.

Gordon: What does the future hold for elephants' rights and the circus?

Nance: The bottom line is that the circus will survive. The art form is still relevant and will continue to be. Just in what form? That is the question for Ringling Brothers. As for elephants, the future is not so certain. But the end of the elephant's time in circus entertainment means that more and more the public—globally—is united in an understanding of elephants as a precious endangered species—not an entertainer or commodity.