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Elephants in Captivity in the United States

The first elephant to be brought to the United States was a two-year old female, originally from India. She arrived on April 13, 1796, when the ship America docked in New York City. Soon after, Hackaliah Bailey formed the Barnum & Bailey Circus and purchased her for $1,000.[1]  More than two centuries later, elephants are being shown in circuses and kept in zoos around the country. While there has been a decline in the use of elephants for both purposes, in part due to the 2015 decision by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to retire all of its elephants from performing, the plight of elephants continues to be an issue for animal advocates.

Elephants kept at both circuses and zoos allegedly suffer because of inadequate space and inappropriate care for their species. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the implementation of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), does not distinguish between circuses and zoos. Under its regulations, “Exhibitor means any person (public or private) exhibiting any animals, which were purchased in commerce or the intended distribution of which affects commerce, or will affect commerce, to the public for compensation, as determined by the Secretary. This term includes carnivals, circuses, animal acts, zoos, and educational exhibits, exhibiting such animals whether operated for profit or not.”[2]

This suggests that the goals of zoos and circuses are identical—they both use animals commercially for public exhibits. However, there are clear distinctions between the use of animals as performers and those kept for display purposes only, especially when it comes to elephants.

However, elephants in both zoos and circuses often exhibit behaviors associated with boredom and confinement. Since elephants need to be active, being kept in a pen, exhibit, or shackles can result in behaviors such as head bobbing, swaying, rocking, head shaking, weaving and standing in one place for extended periods of time. These neurotic behaviors develop due to severe boredom, stress or isolation.[3]

Elephants in Circuses

Currently, there are between 65-69 elephants owned by circuses and travelling shows.[4] Exhibitions with performing elephant acts are prohibited in many cities across 18 states, and several additional states restrict the use of specific instruments that are used to make exotic animals perform. The number of cities with performance bans varies from state to state.  In Arkansas, only one city—Eureka Springs—has instituted this ban. However, there are 12 cities within California that have done so. Major cities that prohibit elephants in circus or performing acts are San Francisco, West Hollywood, Boulder and Madison.[5]

Circus animals are kept in chains or cages 96 percent of the time.[6] These animals can spend up to 100 consecutive hours traveling in confined spaces, while in the wild they travel up to 30 miles per day on foot.[7] Since 1992, 30 elephants have died, including one two-year-old elephant who died from heatstroke when being transported across the Mojave desert in 2004.[8] An investigation done by Mother Jones revealed that (1) elephants spend most of their days in chains or transportation vehicles; (2) they are confined for days at a time without exercise; and (3) they contract diseases such as tuberculosis and herpes.[9]

A former animal trainer for Ringling Bros. said, “[Ringling Bros.] believes that if they can keep these animals afraid, they can keep them submissive… This is how they train their employees to handle these animals.”[10] When she saw an elephant handler jab a bullhook into an elephant’s ear continuously for not lying down, she quit, after only a few months of working there.[11]

The AWA allows trainers to use bull hooks, electric prods and whips to train and instruct elephants. Many circuses use a gray “wonder dust” powder to conceal scars left by bull hooks.[12] Tom Rider, a former Ringling Bros. employee, told ABC News, “’I saw elephants bleeding… We’d have to put wonder dust on them, and it is kind of a charcoal powder that coagulates the blood, and we’d use that to cover it up so they could go into the show.’”[13]

In the circus, elephants are forcibly taken from their mothers with ropes at only a few months old. In the wild, mothers and their male calves stay together for years. Females stay with their mothers for their entire lives. [14] Separation of the sort used by circuses causes long-lasting trauma for the mother and child.

Furthermore, elephants are not meant to perform. It is antithetical to their natural behaviors to balance on barrels and stand on their heads. This teaches children not about conservation, but that elephants are meant to amuse humans.[15] In 2013, HBO released a documentary, An Apology to Elephants, that reveals the brutal treatment of elephants in both circuses and zoos.

Elephants in Zoos

Animal advocates consistently argue that public exhibitions of elephants, such as zoos, do not provide enough space for the animals to roam, and that they fail to replicate wild habitats adequately. While this may be true in many cases, zoos also offer this endangered species a home that is safe from the dangers of living in the wild in an effort to ultimately preserve them. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) claims that observing animals firsthand fosters an appreciation for wildlife in visitors, especially children.[16] The AZA states, “The elephant conservation missions of AZA-accredited zoos encompass a wide range of activities, including conservation education, research, development of relevant technologies, professional training, habitat restoration…” However, is this an accurate statement? Does a direct experience with elephants really lead to increased human compassion for animals? And if so, does this benefit outweigh the disadvantages?

The AZA has space, enclosure, nutrition, reproduction and veterinary requirements for elephants[17], although some zoos neglect these responsibilities. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal Care Manual (2016), elephants must have enough space to comfortably lie down and move around on a chain, and must have “adequate freedom of movement,” including the ability to exercise.[18]

With this vague definition of “adequate freedom” to roam, zoos are able to interpret this regulation broadly. Elephant enclosures, in particular, often are criticized for being spatially insufficient. Elephants often roam hundreds of thousands of acres in the wild, but in zoos they are expected to only inhabit a few acres.

The issue of space is not just a psychological one, resulting in neurotic behaviors. It also has strong physiological consequences for elephants. Many elephants in zoos die prematurely due to infected feet. According to a 2006 article, elephant feet are accustomed to soft material such as grass. Hence, zoos that have concrete flooring put their elephants at risk of chronic arthritis and foot infections. [19] Since 2003, eight elephants at eight AZA-accredited zoos have died due to foot conditions.  A 2012 expose by the Seattle Times [20] showed that over the past 50 years, 390 elephants died at AZA-accredited zoos, and that most died from an injury or condition related to the feet. In its study, the Seattle Times “found that most of the elephants died from injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity, from chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces to musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity caused by being penned or chained for days and weeks at a time.” [21] According to the report, the overall infant mortality rate for elephants is 40 percent, in part because of disease spread from one zoo to another through their breeding programs.

For many people who can’t afford to see an elephant on an African safari, a trip to their local zoo is the only contact they have with these animals. The AZA claims that zoos offer people both the sense of wonderment and aids in the conservation of the species. In August, 2014, UK researcher Eric Jensen investigated whether the effects of zoos promote conservation education in children.[22] He surveyed 3,000 children aged 7-15, asking them to draw their favorite animal in its natural habitat before and after visiting the London Zoo. Jensen discovered that 38 percent of students experienced positive growth in their second drawing, whether it be by better representing an animal’s habitat or natural behavior. In addition, he saw an increase in the compassion children felt for endangered species after the zoo visit—3 percent to 18 percent. Interestingly, students on unguided tours experienced a decrease in learning, which Jensen notes may be due to other factors, such as the presence of teachers on the guided tours in contrast with no teachers on the unguided tours. These results confirm the positive impact guided visits to zoos have on learning about the natural world and concern for animal welfare, as 41 percent of students on such tours learned about conservation biology.[23]

Zoos have knowledge to offer about conservation biology, but do people respond by changing their actions to support conservation, specifically of elephants? Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle found that 88 percent of visitors demonstrated no behavioral change following a visit to t the elephant exhibit. The vast majority of people did not suddenly feel passionate about the conservation of elephants after seeing the zoo’s elephant exhibit.[24] Furthermore, when asked if children can learn about elephants and conservation without seeing live elephants, 66 percent of people said yes. In other words, visiting elephants in zoos is not necessary for education and elephant conservation purposes, at least according to this limited survey. This finding is a critical step toward finding alternative methods of elephant conservation, such as sanctuaries, where elephants are not exploited for the viewing pleasure of zoo visitors.

So how can we learn about elephants and inspire children to be involved in their conservation if elephants are not in zoos? In terms of education, Keith Lindsay of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project says zoos provide a negligible amount of information, and prevent visitors from observing the natural lives of wild elephants. He believes “It is much better to watch films of real elephants behaving naturally—walking, feeding, playing, mating, fighting—in truly natural social groups of up to hundreds of animals ranging widely across ecosystems than to see miserable captive elephants standing around in a bare enclosure, no matter how ‘naturalistic’ the landscaping design may be.”[25] Zoos may be good tools for conservation education, but they are dispensable.

Elephant Sanctuaries

Elephant sanctuaries were established in the United States out of a need to house animals no longer wanted by zoos, circuses and travelling shows. According to research done by Vox, there were at least 65 elephants used in 17 American circuses in 2016,[26] and approximately 230 elephants exhibited in zoos in the U.S. And there are approximately 67[27] elephants in sanctuaries, including the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation. Three out of five elephant sanctuaries in the U.S. use a “Protected Contact” philosophy to approach elephant care that is based on positive reinforcement, barriers that separate humans and animals, and caregivers not trying to assert dominance. Individual elephants decide whether or not to cooperate with caregivers. Caregivers do not engage with the elephants unless necessary, and they do not attempt to mentally or physically control them.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is a great example of this. This sanctuary believes that since the matriarch elephant leads the herd, there is no need for caregivers to actively manage the elephant groups. The facility does not condone the chaining of elephants, and instead allows them to freely roam more than 2,700 acres of land. People interested in volunteering can apply with the notion that they will not come into contact with the elephants and are not guaranteed to see them.[28] Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) also utilizes Protected Contact, which limits physical contact between its caretakers and nine elephants. This sanctuary offers approximately 100 acres of land, and a heated barn for each elephant group—African and Asian—with five barns total. People can pay to visit the elephants at the sanctuary, where they can view the animals from a distance. The same opportunity is available to visitors to the Tennessee sanctuary.[29]

The National Elephant Center, located in Fellsmere, Florida, plans to keep elephants in social groups, and allow them to decide how they want to spend their day. This sanctuary has 225 acres of land, which is split up into individual habitats in which herds will be allowed to roam. They do not use chains, bullhooks or any other instrument to manage elephants. This organization also accepts volunteers, though they make it clear that they will not be in physical contact with the elephants.[30] Currently, this Center is not housing any elephants.[31]

Unlike these protected contact sanctuaries, Riddle’s Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary allows regular human contact with their elephants. Riddle’s has 330 acres in Arkansas and keeps 12 mixed gender and species (African and Asian) elephants. They claim to cultivate an environment founded on positive feedback, which is an aspect of Protected Contact management, but the caretakers are more hands-on with their elephants, physically interacting with them in activities such as feeding and bathing. People can sign up to go to the sanctuary for a weekend and help feed and bathe the elephants while learning about elephant care. They can also apply to the facility’s International School for Elephant Management, which teaches elephant care and reproduction. However, many animal advocates believe this “sanctuary” should actually be called a breeding farm.[32] According to eyewitness accounts, the elephants are confined in small pens and chained in their barns at night, contrary to the information on their website. The animals continue to be exploited for entertainment and Riddle’s has sold elephants to zoos and possibly circuses.[33]

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation also allows close contact between the elephants and the caregivers. Each elephant’s day is carefully scheduled and they have only flat treeless terrain upon which to roam. Ringling Bros. continues to use domination to control its elephants, using bullhooks and other implements to move them around. While females often have some freedom to roam the plains, most of the male elephants are penned in a one-acre sand lot because of their alleged aggression.[34] Most female elephants sleep in the same barn at night. Male elephants, however, each have their own barn and yard, which is fenced with steel pipes. All of the elephants are trained to sleep on the concrete barn floors while still chained. According to staff, they are chained to prevent elephants from stealing food from one another.[35] The 42 elephants at this “sanctuary” are used for breeding to “conserve the species” and will also be exhibited to tourists in the future.

Generally, a sanctuary is a space for elephants to exercise choice and freedom from unnecessary human intervention into their lives. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the PAWS sanctuary and The National Elephant Center all fall under this definition. Riddle’s Wildlife and Elephant Sanctuary and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’ Center for Elephant Conservation, however, retain a more hands-on or even restrictive philosophy pertaining to elephant care. Perhaps a better use of the word “sanctuary” is needed. According to the AZA, “private elephant ranches are essentially large, unaccredited zoos.” [36] While this may not be an accurate description of three of the U.S. elephant sanctuaries, the remaining two facilities do appear to fit this description.


Public exhibitions of elephants, such as zoos and circuses, and pseudo-sanctuaries fail to provide adequate care and space that elephants require. Too often, they neglect and mistreat elephants. Elephants are creatures who need hundreds of acres to roam, a herd with whom to socialize and free choice in their days’ activities.

If you believe that an elephant is being mistreated in an AZA-accredited zoo, a circus, a travelling exhibition or a sanctuary, inform the local police department. Animal abuse is a crime in every state and the local police are in the best position to investigate this abuse. Supporting efforts to preserve elephants in the wild, not breed them in captivity, is one of the best ways to help to conserve these beautiful creatures for future generations.

1 http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1928_05-06_pick.html

2 https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2013-title9-vol1/xml/CFR-2013-title9-vol1-chapI-subchapA.xml

3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4103097/

4 http://www.vox.com/2016/5/30/11760880/circus-elephants

5 http://www.bornfreeusa.org/b4a3_circuses_and_shows.php

6 https://www.paws.org/get-involved/take-action/explore-the-issues/circus-cruelty/

7 http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/ringling-brothers-barnam-bailey-cruelest-show-on-earth/

8 http://www.mediapeta.com/peta/PDF/RinglingFactsheet.pdf


9 http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2011/10/ringling-bros-elephant-abuse

10 http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/animals-used-entertainment-factsheets/circuses-three-rings-abuse/

11 http://wildlifeadvocacy.org/current/pdfs/Archele%20Hundley%20Statement.pdf

12 https://www.thedodo.com/circus-elephant-universoul-995842256.html

13 http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=6798230&page=1

14 http://www.peta.org/features/ringling-bros-elephant-cruelty/ http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/ringling-brothers-barnam-bailey-cruelest-show-on-earth/

15 http://www.occupyforanimals.net/circus.html

16 https://www.aza.org/conservation-education/

17 https://www.aza.org/elephant-faq/

18 https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/downloads/Animal%20Care%20Policy%20Manual.pdf

19 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (http://www.post-gazette.com/news/nation/2006/11/17/Zoo-confinement-gives-elephants-problem-feet/stories/200611170141)

20 Seattle Times (http://old.seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2019809167_elephants02m.html)

21 Ibid.

22 Conservation Biology 28(4), March 2014 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261254556_Evaluating_Children’s_Conservation_Biology_Learning_at_the_Zoo

23 (https://faunalytics.org/feature-article/evaluating-childrens-conservation-biology-learning-at-the-zoo/) (http://www.takepart.com/feature/2014/05/02/do-zoos-matter)

24 (http://www.freewpzelephants.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Survey-FINAL-Report.pdf)

25 (http://www.takepart.com/feature/2014/05/02/do-zoos-matter)

26 (http://www.vox.com/2016/5/30/11760880/circus-elephants)

27 https://www.vice.com/read/the-ringling-bros-elephant-sanctuary-is-hardly-a-paradise

28 http://www.elephants.com/management.php

29 http://www.pawsweb.org/meet_elephants.html

30 http://www.nationalelephantcenter.org/care/

31 http://www.tcpalm.com/news/indian-river-county/exclusive-remaining-pachyderms-leaving-national-elephant-center-in-fellsmere-2432d740-0799-09fe-e053-345114292.html

32 http://www.elephants.com/tina/tina_presanctuary.php

33 http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2011/dec/09/ohio-zoo-gets-elephant-arkansas-sanctuary/ and http://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article21647847.html

34 http://time.com/4177844/elephants-retire-circus-sanctuary/)

35 (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150916-ringling-circus-elephants-florida-center/)

36 https://www.aza.org/elephant-faq