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By: The Elephant Sanctuary

Animals Don't Belong in American Circuses

Billie, a former circus elephant, roams through the grounds of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee...

Billie, a former circus elephant now roams through the grounds of The Elephant Sanctuary
Billie, a former circus elephant, roams through the grounds of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Billie is the subject of Carol Bradley's book "Last Chain on Billie."
Photo: Courtesy of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

Even 50 years ago, the sight of wild animals performing under bright lights and to ear-splitting music might have seemed an unassailable slice of Americana. Today it just feels tawdry and cheap. We’ve learned too much about the intelligence and emotional lives of animals — their ability to feel happiness, sympathy and depression — to overlook the suffering they undergo in the name of entertainment.

Yet despite growing awareness of circuses’ sinister side — the brutal training of animals taken too soon from their mothers, the dangers to their health from standing on hard surfaces all that time, the mind-numbing monotony of their diminished lives — circuses have insisted they couldn’t survive without the animals, above all, elephants.

Then last week came a complete and utter show-stopper. The biggest circus of all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, suddenly announced that it will phase out its elephant act by 2018.

Ringling’s admission that the public has grown uncomfortable seeing elephants perform was nothing short of astonishing. But the circus needs to do more: It needs to retire the tigers and camels as well. And smaller circuses need to follow suit. More than a dozen countries have banned wild animal acts entirely. American circuses can do it, too.

Billie, the subject of my book, was a Shrine Circus elephant for many years before she was finally rescued nine years ago. Now 53, she wanders freely at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. (www.elephants.com), one of two refuges in the United States for old, sick and needy pachyderms.

It’s true that elephants don’t forget, so she will never completely overcome the abuse inflicted by her handlers. But she is learning to be an elephant again and there are days when she experiences moments of utter elation. Don’t all performing elephants deserve that chance?

Think about that when the Shrine Circus rolls into town next month with the same worn-out animal acts. Let’s tell the Shriners that the trapeze artists, clowns and motorcycle daredevils — the individuals who choose to perform — are dazzling enough. And that we’ll happily patronize them once they go animal-free.

Carol Bradley is the author of “Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top,” published last summer by St. Martin’s Press. She lives in Great Falls.

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