The dull life of circus elephants


The Carl Busch Circus and its two elephants. Credit: Yalakom

The Carl Busch Circus, an old travelling circus created in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1891, was giving representations in my town this past week-end. A show was ongoing when I walked along the parking lot where the troup had temporarily settled. In the distance, I could see horses, ponies and camels waiting with their handlers at the back entrance of the white and blue tent. A few meters away, two elephants were standing in a small enclosure built from scratch on the concrete ground.

I had not seen elephants in a very long time, which after all is normal for someone who resides in Europe and keeps away from zoos. My previous and only encounter with these majestic mammals had happened in my childhood and made a profound impression on me. But instead of excitement, yesterday’s sightings gave me the blues. 

These two specimens looked awfully bored, dispirited and jaded. Their dull black eyes stared into space and both displayed stereotypic behavior (also called zoochosis). During my twenty-minute observation, the larger elephant continuously rocked his body on three legs while swinging his left foreleg forward and back in the air; awkwardly enough the smaller one walked backwards, erratically and aimlessly. These movements instantly reminded me of stable vices that commonly affect stalled horses for the same reasons: boredom, stress, confinement, lack of social interaction, positive mental stimulation and exercise.

Such behaviors often affect captive animals and can lead to long term health problems if not addressed. Witnessing these miserable elephants was saddening knowing their situation and that of many others will not improve in the future unless a law is passed.

At a time when the legitimacy of zoos is vigorously contested―see award-wining documentary film The Elephant in the Room below―circuses are also in the firing line. People increasingly agree that these forms of captivity are incompatible with animal welfare and initiatives implementing this idea have begun to emerge thanks to the pressure of animal protection groups. In Europe, a few countries banned the use of wildlife in circuses (The Netherlands, Slovenia, Greece and Cyprus) and similar prohibitive legislations exist in various South American countries (Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay and Columbia). The United Kingdom should be next as a law is currently being discussed at the parliament to that effect.

Wild animals may have been an important component of the modern circus, i.e. where performers act in a ring, for over two centuries. Yet, when British equestrian master Philip Astley first created this form of circus in 1768, the only staged animals were horses. And in recent decades circuses have proven to be capable of providing great entertainment and make incredible profits without involving wildlife (and even domesticated animals) in their shows, the best example being the notorious Canadian Cirque du Soleil.

Here is a 2014 award-winning documentary film which addresses the terrible issue of elephant confinement in zoos across Europe. To watch absolutely.


These 8 Countries Have Banned Wild Animals in Circuses…Why Can’t We Do it?, One Green Planet, 19 March 2014.

Wild Animals in Circuses Bill 2014-15 on the website of Parliament of the United Kingdom

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