Since the dawn of human history, opposing forces have been engaged in warfare utilizing a variety of weaponry, gadgets and accoutrement. As the American cultural climate takes its contemporary turn toward matters long ignored by the masses, a new focus on animal rights (AR) and animal welfare has emerged. The elephant, now severely endangered, has of late been the focus of many animal rights and welfare groups’ actions. Animal rights activists (ARAs) have been achieving progress in the areas of factory farming, the fur industry, companion animal breeding and other areas; however, the plight of the captive elephant receives little attention in comparison. With some current research turning its focus on zoos, circuses, magic shows, elephant rides and other aspects of performing elephants, it seems apropos to trace human use of elephants to its genesis and to briefly revisit its roots deep in the classical world and discuss how best to save elephants from extinction.
The war elephant used so profusely by ancient peoples is not familiar to many people, and few in the West seem to spend time researching this once brutal use of the elephant. In fact, for over three thousand years, elephants were used in warfare. Elephants were used as battering rams, tanks and cargo carriers long before machines were created. In illustration of the dearth of war elephant research, this paper often refers to the only book dedicated solely to war elephants written in the English language: War Elephants by John M. Kistler. The author writes that until gunpowder severely limited the effectiveness of the animal in the seventeenth century, the largest land mammals on earth performed amazing feats during wars including building roads and swinging swords as well as completely terrifying enemies (Kistler, 2007). While people may be aware of war elephants and circus elephants, obvious ethical connections between the two are rarely, if ever, made.
For both war and circus purposes, people captured elephants from the wild, deprived them of needed socialization, imposed crushing isolation on them, deprived them of their basic needs, failed to realize their rights as individuals, failed to value them intrinsically and damaged their complex and self-aware psyches. This paper examines the war elephants of antiquity and contemporary uses of the elephant and connects this past grievance with the patronizing of circuses by Americans. It would be helpful for ARAs to pay more attention to the elephant and to gain a brief grounding in the history of the war elephant because these elephants were forced into fierce wars to serve and die, and forgetting them dishonors their sacrifices.