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By: Jim Meyers

Ringling Bros. Elephant Decision Needs To Go Further

The Tennessean

By Jim Meyers, The Tennessean

No more "stupid pet tricks," I thought with a deep breath.

Elephants in circus
The elephants are one of the big highlights of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus at the Municipal Auditorium Oc. 24, 1964. Over 13,000 took in the two shows of "The Greatest Show on Earth."
(Photo: Frank Empson / The Tennessean)


That's what Hal Herzog, a psychologist and expert on the ethics of human-animal issues called circus elephant routines when I interviewed him two years ago.

With the announcement that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey would stop the use of elephants in all of its circus programs by 2018, it felt like an emotional seismic shift that I wondered would ever happen.

This is no small thing for a company whose brand identity was built around the giant pachyderms, and for more than 100 years thrilled audiences with their abilities to make 4-ton animals balance on pedestals and stack themselves in makeshift conga lines.

Shifts in public awareness, though, along with legislation banning circus elephants in certain municipalities, may have forced Feld Entertainment's hand. Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of the Ringling Bros. parent company that bears his name, spun the decision to The Associated Press, "We're not reacting to our critics; we're creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant."

He's referring to the company's Center for Elephant Conservation near Orlando, Fla. Two years ago, Tennessean photographer Sam Simpkins and I traveled there to tour the facility.

Established in 1995, it was created as a retirement home for animals past their performing prime as well as a research and breeding facility.

I applaud Feld for making this change, and also concur with the Elephant Sanctuary in Howenwald, Tenn., which issued the following statement:

"The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is very pleased with the news of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' plan to retire their elephants from performing. Feld Entertainment has made an important decision with regard to elephant well being — in fact, a life-changing decision for each individual elephant in their custody."

Ringling Bros. elephants in Nashville, TN

(Picture left) - Tennessean music reporter Sandy Neese, front, takes the ride of her life on the back of big Betty, the largest of 21 Asian elephants in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The group pass the Ryman Auditorium June 20, 1983 to the Municipal Auditorium for the up coming circus.
(Photo: Dan Loftin / The Tennessean)

Still, I have many nagging concerns, principally, how to deal with a growing population of male elephants that are the natural result of breeding programs.

After leaving the CEC in Florida, I was struck with the sadness that male elephants remain confined and chained, especially during their periods of must, when they become overcome by hormones and aggressive in their one-track pursuit of females in heat.

The CEC claims to use "protective contact" where handlers are separated by barriers from the animals. However, what I witnessed was protective contact only in name, and not in the spirit of positive reinforcement that is the foundation of how it is employed at the Elephant Sanctuary and other progressive facilities.

Ringling Bros. testimony about use of bullhooks

I spoke with Margaret Whittaker, the Director of Elephant Care for the Sanctuary, and the distinction is clear. The use of bullhooks, or "guides," employed by Ringling Bros. is negative or punitive reinforcement. The use of fear and the threat of pain needs to be the next shoe to drop. Whittaker has shown that elephants can be handled effectively through positive reinforcement and cooperative relationships, not through force and domination.

That's why a comprehensive plan for bulls — the male elephants that still live in confinement and the ones that need to be treated as more than a byproduct of breeding — needs to be put into place. There are encouraging developments at the zoo in Oakland which is creating a refuge where males will have the space to roam, create bachelor groups and behave more closely the way their wild counterparts do.

Tennessee, Florida elephant retirement homes differ in approach


That new facility and the one here in Tennessee are the only ones with enough land to do it the right way, but it is remarkably expensive. Fencing for a 2,000-acre bull enclosure is estimated to be close to $170 per linear foot.

Again, it's a start and we need to applaud Ringling Bros. and Feld Entertainment. Let's now turn our attention to the next steps for sustained success in animal welfare, and look to all appropriate federal agencies and ban the use of bullhooks.

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