The Greatest Animal Exploitation on Earth: Circus Elephants Finally Get Their Day in Court

This week, a U.S. District Court is finally hearing evidence of elephant abuse at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, owned by Feld Entertainment, Inc. The case is the culmination of more than eight years of research, undercover work, legal and political challenges, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections, and the work of innumerable volunteers who have made the connection between animal entertainment and animal abuse.

In this case, as with most other large-scale industrial and commercial animal abuse that comes to the public’s attention, documenting what goes on behind the curtain is critical. Undercover investigators often work for months before they can even think of bringing a camera into a circus, a research lab, an animal dealer or a slaughterhouse.

As a documentary filmmaker I spent almost a decade observing humankind’s cruelty towards other earthlings while doing research for the film Earthlings about the use of animals in five key industries, one of which is entertainment. While making the film I was exposed to more of the inside workings of circuses than I could ever forget or ignore. The list of abuses circus animals endure goes on and on, and is too shocking to describe in detail here, but I have seen hours of footage of circus elephants being beaten, starved, screamed at and attacked to get them to do “tricks” for our amusement and for the profit of companies like Feld.

Training these normally peaceful animals is an ugly, violent practice. During the making of the film I was contacted by a veterinary technician who worked undercover with a circus. Circuses often brag about the number of veterinarians and vet techs they employ, as if it is a positive statement about the health and safety of their animals. But in fact, vets and vet techs are also responsible for medicating, cleaning and patching up the wounds of animals that have been injured and abused during training. It would certainly frighten the children if they appeared on stage bloody and swollen. A plaintiff in the case against Feld Entertainment describes the use of “wonder dust,” a powder that acts as a coagulant, applied to cover up bloody wounds before showtime.

The vet tech who provided us with some footage used in Earthlings had a difficult time working for the circus. On his first day he was told that if they found out he worked for an animal protection organization, he would be taken into the woods and would never be heard from again. While it may have been said in jest, he certainly felt uneasy about it and noticed that new employees were always carefully watched. After observing the abuse of circus animals for three months he began using a tiny camera concealed in a button on his shirt or under his cap. One day he was discovered with the camera, and, recalling the death threats, he ran to his car and drove across three counties before his co-workers gave up the chase.

Opinion polls show that most Americans oppose the use of wild animals in the circus. Animal entertainment, including circuses, rodeos, zoos, sports such as horse racing, dog racing, dogfighting, cockfighting, and bullfighting, raise sensitive issues, ones we don’t usually want to be forced to learn about. When we do, thanks to high-profile cases like this one, we generally prove ourselves to be conscious and compassionate by nature. We stop consuming these forms of “entertainment” and take our children to baseball games, musicals, or amusement parks instead. Many U.S. cities have already banned circuses, rodeos, and other forms of animal entertainment, and animal-free circuses where the main attractions are humans with eclectic talents have become extremely popular.

Mark Twain said “Of all the creatures ever made (man) is the most detestable … He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain.” Most people cringe when they see the pain animals endure for our entertainment, particularly to the extent that I’ve seen, and this is a positive reaction, because it shows humanity and reminds us who we truly are. Of course, it’s possible to ignore who we are, but in the long run that makes us much less comfortable.

The three stages of truth are said to be ridicule, violent opposition, and acceptance. We have clearly passed the stage of ridicule; otherwise, a lawsuit like this one against the “Greatest Show on Earth” would not be intellectually possible. When we make the connection between our actions and their impact on other earthlings, we are able to make these kinds of changes that create a more humane, peaceful world.

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