The ivory trade may be closer to home than war elephants for most Americans, but there are yet other problems more relatable to the average citizen. Truthfully, the existence of circus elephants is not much better than the lives of the Carthaginian war elephants of long ago. The average American is quick to shun ivory poaching and elephants being used as war machines or executioners while continuing to attend the circus due to a longstanding outdated American iconic event. Ironically, it is the ivory trade that supplies many orphaned calves who are shipped to zoos and circuses around the world. A multitude of research regarding what circus, zoo, and other performing elephants undergo is available, and it is valid to link the life of a contemporary performing elephant in a traveling circus to that of the war elephant in the military campaigns of antiquity.
Though some people are attempting to train with positive reinforcement, it is widely understood that circus elephants are usually trained with the application of pain and fear (circuses.com, 2008). Many trainers feel this is the only reliable way to make a six-ton animal perform on cue while providing any degree of safety to circusgoers and elephant handlers. Elephants are routinely whipped with ankuses, bull hooks and cattle prods. They are poked and stabbed in sensitive areas. The tricks they are trained to perform are not natural extensions of their behaviors and often result in dire and sometimes fatal injuries. This has led some animal rights and animal welfare groups to adamantly protest circus that use elephants.
In the wild, elephants often walk up to sixty miles a day, and in traveling circuses they are often chained in spaces the size of an automobile for up to twenty hours a day. Elephants often display disturbing stereotypic behavior such as head swaying and shifting from foot to foot (Epstein, 1993). It is believed by many that the crushing boredom, fear, and lack of exercise damage their complex psyches and leads some of them to become violent and rampage, often killing children, adults and trainers. Then, they suffer a further misfortune when they are labeled as violent or dangerous and isolated even further or gunned down or otherwise euthanized. Conversely, zoo and circus advocates offer contradictory evidence stating their animal are very well cared for and cite their compliance with the Animal Welfare Act’s (AWA) minimum standards. Activists claim the AWA is so extremely limited in its protection that the fulfilment of its minimum requirements in order to keep licensure does very little to actually protect the mental and physical well being of the animals. As a result, many have called for the retiring of all performing and captive elephants to the two large elephant sanctuaries in Tennessee and California as solutions to circus and zoo elephant issues. It appears the circus elephant has direct links with the war elephant in complex psychological ways. Both were captured from the wild, deprived of needed socialization, had crushing isolation imposed on them, never had their needs met, failed to have their rights as individuals realized, failed to be intrinsically valued and had their Daedalian psyches damaged.