Sue Coe's Elephant tales
Reunion of Alice and Jumbo, a painting in progress
The Death of Jumbo
Barnum's Winter Quarters Burn
Elephants in Our Midst
Topsy: An Elephant Never Forgets
Exotic animal collections -- the menagerie and the circus
Menageries, collections of wild and/or exotic animals are the ancestors of the modern zoological garden. Elephants and camels, along with the big cats (lions, tigers, leopards) were among the animals often found in early menageries. The ability to collect and maintain exotic animals in private zoos continues to be seen as a demonstration of power and wealth. Vladimir Putin's birthday gift in 2008 was a rare Siberian tiger cub.
The Circus in America
Once menageries took to the road, the circus was born. Currently, the romance and nostalgia associated with the circus tradition is tarnished by a growing public consciousness of the toll circus life takes on the health and well-being of its captive animal performers. Animal-free circus entertainment is on the rise, and it earns a profit, but the 'cruelty for profit' tradition hangs on. The issue will ultimately find resolution in the court of public opinion. Until that verdict is in, seeing an example of what goes on in law courts is instructive.
The case against Feld Entertainment
Feld is the parent company of Ringling Brothers, and Barnum & Bailey. The plaintiff (the ASPCA and other animal protection organizations) brought accusations of Feld's cruelty toward some of the 52 elephants owned by the company and also questioned the legal possession of any elephants thought to have been captured wild, rather than captive bred. As members of an endangered species, wild Asian elephants are not to be captured and sold outside of Asia. The case is on-going; see under Filings [downloadable pdf files] the initial complaint, Feld's answer and the judgement rendered to date. See also a two page summary by Feld. Feld's answer to each paragraph in the complaint consists of either denial of the assertions or lack of knowledge of the assertions. In Feld's view, the elephants are well cared for because Feld says they are well cared for, and it is unknown or unproven whether any of them were captured wild, but even if they were, then Feld didn't do it. No fault, no foul. Meanwhile, the cruelty continues only so long as the public buys tickets for animal acts in the Big Top.
A blog of circus history, supporting the use of animals in circuses -- the defense of the indefensible.
The first elephants to be exhibited in North America
Captain Jacob Crowninshield brought the first elephant to North America from India in 1796. This young female elephant, whose name is not known, was exhibited in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Charleston. Her last recorded exhibition was held in 1818, in York Pennsylvania.
1804-1816 Old Bet's story on Wikipedia -- for an alternative explanation of her death and ways in which she was a subject for exploitation at least a century after her death, see below, Homage to Old Bet.
Jumbo d. 1885. See also the Tufts Journal
Alice thought to have died in Barnum's Bridgeport fire in 1887. Listed as cause and date of death unknown
Topsy d. 1903 -- the only elephant to have been electrocuted.
Big Mary d. 1916. Mary was ineptly but ultimately successfully executed by being hung from a large railroad derrick.
1922 - Homage to Old Bet. This newspaper story neatly encapsulates both the silliness and the savagery visited upon captive animals -- here, the main characters are Old Bet herself, and another elephant, Old John L. Sullivan, who lived almost a century after Bet was killed. The plan is to have Old John, the living elephant, make a pilgrimage of 53 miles on foot to Bet's monument in the town of Somers, New York. Somers is described as the 'birthplace of the American circus' because it is where Bet's owner lived, and where she was exhibited (c. 1821) as the sole 'circus' attraction, in what some think of as the first circus in America. In this version of her demise, Old Bet 'became troublesome,' 'went on a rampage' and was shot to death while touring South Carolina in 1827. The ceremony is suitably solomn: John will lay a wreath on Bet's monument and raise his trunk in salute. This same brand of maudlin anthropomorphism led P. T. Barnum to dress Alice in widow's weeds and exhibit her beside the stuffed skin of Jumbo in 1886.
In 1922, Old John L. (1860?-1932) is a retiree from circus life; in the 1880s, as the elephantine namesake of a famous human contemporary, the bare knuckles boxing champion John L. Sullivan, elephant John L. would rear up on two hind legs and with a glove on the end of his trunk, 'challenge all comers.' Now crippled with rheumatism, Old John no longer boxes, but he is still useful for pushing circus wagons around. The article spreads charming fictions about John's pilgrimage -- that 'today will be a gala day' and that John for all his aching joints is eager to 'start out on the road again'.
Hoopla, distraction, and spectacles larger than life provide entertainment and escape from reality for the circus audience. In all its glitter and glory, the circus is antithetical to nature and truth. Big cats don't jump through rings of fire because it is their nature. Old John L. didn't naturally strike a boxer's pose. In fact, though Old John is described as a tuskless male Indian elephant, he could as easily have been an Old Jill, but for the whim and decision of his owners. Whatever her/his gender, the maudlin tribute to Old Bet was one final hypocrisy visited upon the murdered creature, through the innocent and unknowing actions of her fellow captive, 100 years later.
Captive elephants often die violent deaths
Violent death is a common fate for circus elephants, starting with the shooting of the first American circus elephant, Old Bet. See the elephant database for this and other cases. The eponymous Jumbo was hit and killed by a train; six other Barnum & Bailey elephants burned to death trapped in their chains (one in 1886, five more in 1887). Between 1898 and 1907 six others were executed for showing aggression: they were either strangled, drowned, or in the case of Topsy, an ex-circus elephant, electrocuted in a demonstration of the then new technology by Thomas Edison. Edison, competing with George Westinghouse to corner the burgeoning market for electricity, championed DC (direct current) technology. He killed Topsy using alternating current, in order to demonstrate the dangers of the AC system.
July 2007: Roumania -- Bucharest zoo sets dogs on elephant. As a result of entering the EU, Roumania found itself having to comply with new laws meant to improve animal welfare -- minimum acceptable cage sizes, for example. "But without the funding to make the changes, zoo managements have been left with animals they can no longer afford to keep, or to re-house." Unable to coax Gaya, the zoo's elephant, into her winter quarters, zoo staff thought to drive her with dogs. In fear and panic from the dog bites, Gaya fell and broke a leg. She lay immobile for two days, until she died from a combination of stress and respiratory problems.
September 2008: Mexico -- bus runs into and kills escaped elephant
Elephants at war and at work
Elephants have long histories in the ancient civilizations in India, Burma and North Africa (think Hannibal's weaponized elephants set against Roman soldiers). Elephants have been used in warfare as recently as World War II, in Burma, where for thousands of years elephants have been domesticated and employed in the timber industry and for transportation.
"Historically and culturally elephants have played an important role in Burma similar to that found in India and in Thailand. Elephants were the work-horses of the pre-mechanised age; they were the battle tanks of the army and were a visual sign of the wealth and power of the nobility. Throughout the country, images of elephants are omnipresent and the use of elephants in religious and cultural ceremonies is still common.
Burma has the second largest population of the world's remaining wild Asian elephants and the largest continuous areas of natural habitat. Burma is also the only country that continues to use elephants on a large scale in industry. As a result of these unique factors, the future of Burma's elephant population is of primary importance to the conservation of the entire species."
Elephants as neighbors
India is home to both wild and domesticated elephants. However, growing instances of Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) too often means death, for both humans and elephants, when one species 'trespasses' into the other's habitat. Encounters between these species are on the rise as are the death tolls: people die as a result of accidental encounters with wild elephants in the forest; people and elephants both risk death when elephants raid croplands that now encroach on what was once remote elephant habitat. Elephants are also known to ransack villages in search of a favorite treat/bad habit picked up from contact with humans: alcoholic beverages.
Less accidental human-elephant encounters are fueled by the illegal trade in ivory. Only male Indian elephants have tusks. Ivory poaching has reduced the male or 'tusker' elephant population in India from what is a healthy and sustainable ratio of one bull to 12 cows to approximately 1 bull to 100 cows. The genetic variation within the remaining gene pool, the criteria for the health and well being of the population, is now dangerously reduced.
December 2006: India -- Osama bin Elephant
October 2008: Kenya's Elephants Send Text Messages
Malasia: Elephant sanctuary: tales of heroism and evolution
Elephants of Samburu, The National Geographic September 2008
Data bases and elephant protection organizations
Elephant Facts and Information Sweden || [database]
Animal Welfare Information Center: USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
World Wildlife Federation
CAPS (Captive Animals' Protection Society), based in UK
video of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee
Books, film, etc.
The Urban Elephant, as seen on PBS as part of the NATURE series
Vanishing Giants: Elephants of Asia by Palani Mohan, photojournalist
Steve Bloom, Elephant, Chronicle Books 2006. photographs taken in Africa and India
Paul Chambers, Jumbo: This Being the True Story of the Greatest Elephant in the World, Steerforth 2008. "Chambers highlights the personalities of the major players in the tale: Scott, a reclusive, irascible man at ease with animals but not with people; Abraham Bartlett, the superintendent of the London Zoo, who longed to be rid of the irksome keeper and his often troublesome elephant; Barnum, the flamboyant showman; and Jumbo himself, moody and subject to displays of temper, but gentle with thousands of children who rode on his back."
Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants: A Novel, Algonquin Books 2007
Ralph Helfer, Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived, Harper Paperbacks 1998 "one glorious pachyderm and one cracking story." Some reviewers question the use of 'true' in the title. Another Modoc link
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, Delta 1996. Investigations into the emotions of non-human animals. See also a Cambodian-American Rock Opera of the same name.
Cynthia Moss, Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family, William Morrow & Co. 1988; University of Chicago Press, 2000. The privilege of watching African elephants on their home ground, illustrated with photographs.
Caitlen O'Connell, The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa, University of Chicago Press 2008. Elephants listen with their feet.
Yukio Tsuchiya, illustrated byTed Lewin, Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People and War, Houghton Mifflin 1988, 1997