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September 2000
Circus Elephants Are Hooked on Performing

By Barbara Stagno



It’s intermission at the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus during its July performance in Queens, NY. Time for the elephant rides. Backstage, the elephant trainer prepares Jewel, one of four elephants, to give rides. Jewel is outfitted with a gaily-colored banner atop which sits a saddle. It is really more of a platform for holding squirming children. The banner has bright, yellow stars splashed all over. It does not, however, hide the heavy chain harness that is winched tightly against Jewel’s body to secure the platform; or the lackluster expression on her face.

Jewel is brought outside and the rides begin. She is led around and around in a small circle while her trainer shouts at her as they engage in what is clearly the interplay of slave and master. "C’mon Jewel! Over here Jewel. Now!"

The verbal barrage does little to motivate her. What really moves her is the metal hook he continually pokes her with. Known as a bullhook, or ankus, it is a tool designed specifically to dominate elephants. Not only is it deceptively sharp, it is nearly invisible to all but the most astute observer. It takes little force to deliver pricks that remind the elephant of the pain it can inflict when used more forcefully. It is also suitable for concealed dragging: just place it in the corner of the animal’s lip or ear—and pull.

Currently, use of the bullhook is completely legal. Even so, the Clyde Beatty Circus has come under recent attack by government authorities for inflicting injuries with it. In April 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) charged the circus with violations of the Animal Welfare Act, citing that four elephants had bullhook wounds. Nine months later, the circus was assessed a $10,000 civil penalty to settle the charges. The USDA agreed to suspend the fine, provided the money would be used to hire a consultant to instruct them on the proper handling of elephants. Since the Clyde Beatty Circus is hardly a fledgling operation, this arrangement is, at best, questionable. One month later, a follow-up USDA inspection found new wounds on two elephants that were caused by beatings with a bullhook.

Means for Motivation
While touring New York City in July, Jewel’s handler is observed using the hook with discretion. When not poking her, he holds it handle-side down, so that the sharp end is concealed in his palm. Jewel’s headdress has recently been outfitted with a little ring, so that he can hook the bullhook into that and drag her. But the USDA’s ongoing reports of elephant wounds create the suspicion that the bullhook may be used more freely when not in public view. Jewel has two golf-ball sized holes in her ear. Another elephant, Helen, also has a visible hole in her ear.

The hole in Helen’s ear is probably the least of her problems. For more than a year, she’s walked with a visible limp in her right rear leg. Like many circus elephants, Helen has become increasingly lame due to lack of proper exercise and the strain of performing unnatural tricks day in and day out. Her disability is so pronounced that last year, a cruelty officer in New Jersey slapped the circus with charges for forcing Helen to work while injured.

These charges were recently dismissed, even though Helen was observed in March by three veterinarians who determined that she has a chronic, degenerative condition which is aggravated by grueling circus routines. At the time, Helen was being forced to give rides and perform circus tasks, including pulling a caravan of tiger cages. Though the circus claims to have released her from such duties, she is still performing tricks that put stress on her painful knee, like standing on her hind legs and kneeling.

The Reality of Retirement
In Defense of Animals (IDA) would like to see Helen relieved from the pain of constant performing. But we also shudder to think what may happen to Helen if she’s truly "retired" from circus life. Her situation is a chilling reminder of the last two disabled elephants, Conti and Pete, whom the circus removed from service.

Conti and Pete (a nickname for Petunia) were also lame from circus abuse. Following an outpouring of pressure from animal activists, the circus made a snap decision last July to "retire" them both. But there were no green pastures or days in the sun for these elephants. Within a month, both were dead. Pete collapsed in a field and lay on the ground for two and a half days before circus personnel lifted her with a crane. Upon rising, Pete drank some water, urinated several liters of blood, and dropped dead.

The necropsy report on Pete described hemorrhaging throughout her body. Her handlers say it resulted from her fall, but what would cause such a fall? The hemorrhaging may have resulted from her struggle to upright herself, a struggle which her caretakers allowed her to endure for nearly three days before intervening. It may also have occurred from beatings.

Although the cause of the elephants’ deaths will never been proven, it is the opinion of IDA that they received some sort of harsh and ugly treatment which led to their sudden, unexplained deaths. Even if the elephants collapsed due to lameness, why did the circus wait to raise Pete back on her feet? Why did Conti die of similar causes less than two weeks later? The independent veterinarians who conducted the necropsy on Pete refused to do one on Conti, claiming that they were too disturbed by what they had found on Pete. The USDA has closed the inspection on this matter and seems content with the number of unanswered questions surrounding it.

The tragic deaths of Pete and Conti are not the whole story. Since 1991, the Clyde Beatty-Cole Circus has been cited six times by the USDA for a variety of infractions, including unsafe trailers and failure to provide adequate veterinary care for its elephants.

Veterinary care at Clyde Beatty is at best perfunctory. According to the USDA, Helen has a paralyzed tail, the result of a truck accident, and has not been adequately treated for this condition. Because her tail is immobile, it collects fecal material which stagnates. Bessie, another elephant, has been urinating blood for months. Untreated and undiagnosed, the circus dismisses her condition as insignificant. All four elephants are in need of basic foot care, a vital necessity for elephants forced to live and work on hard surfaces that are totally alien to what their feet would encounter in nature.

So goes the life of a circus elephant. On June 13, 2000, Congress held hearings to consider H.R. 2929, The Captive Elephant Accident Prevention Act. This bill would, if passed, ban the use of elephants in traveling shows. Tom Rider, a former elephant trainer, spoke at the hearings. In his testimony, Rider offered these sobering words:

"I worked with Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus in 1997 as an elephant keeper and I loaded the children for the elephant ride. The elephant which we used, Pete or Petunia, was considered to be a dangerous animal and we were cautioned not to go near her. Despite this, she was used for rides...carrying as many as ten children at a time on her back.

"I left Beatty Cole because in White Plains, NY, when Pete did not perform her act properly, she was taken to the tent, laid down and five trainers beat her with bullhooks. Pete is now dead."

Barbara Stagno is Northeast Regional Director for In Defense of Animals, a national organization dedicated to ending the abuse of animals by defending their rights, welfare and habitats. To learn more or to join their campaigns call (212) 462-3068 or visit

How You Can Help Circus Elephants

* Contact: Commissioner Henry Stern, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, 830 5 Ave., NY, NY 10021; phone (212) 360-1305; fax (212) 360-1345. Request that he stop granting permits to perform in the city’s parks to any circus that uses animals.

* Contact: Dr. Ron DeHaven, Animal Care Deputy Administrator, USDA/APHIS/AC, 4700 River Rd., Riverdale, MD 20737. Ask that the USDA revoke Clyde Beatty’s permit based on its ongoing, documented record of animal abuse.

* Contact your Congressional Representative and ask him/her to support H.R. 2929. Also contact your U.S. Senators and ask them to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.

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