Ban elephant circus acts: training always employs torture

Suzette Standring
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Growing up, I delighted in circus elephants.  Giant, gentle animals that stood on all fours atop a ball.  A dancer riding the ring on an elephant’s head was both thrilling and fairy-like.  That was long before I learned about the torture used to train elephants: chaining, using sharp hooks on their sensitive parts, isolation, starvation, and confined within transportation trucks to endure days on the road, in extreme heat or cold, to the next circus.

Handlers deny abuse, but widespread evidence shows violence is routine. In response, Massachusetts lawmakers seek to ban circuses from using elephant acts (Senate Bill 1898, and House Bill 418).  On January 17 at the Massachusetts State House, “Lobby for Circus Elephants” gives voice to citizens determined to protect these animals.

I draw guidance from Genesis 1:26: Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

To me, humanity’s “rule” over nature is about good stewardship as torture is not part of God’s image and likeness.

Elephants have high emotional intelligence. Family bonds are social and affectionate. They grieve and can shed tears over the death of loved ones. It’s true: elephants never forget, like rescued circus elephants Shirley and Jenny, which were reunited at The Elephant Sanctuary after 25 years.  (

Because of their size elephants are perceived as tough or impervious to pain. Studies show the sensitivity of their feet can detect motion from miles away, which informs the herd of possible danger in advance.  Feet that are meant to wander grasslands.  Yet routinely circus elephants are chained tightly to stand on concrete floors, which make painful foot conditions common.

Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circuses closed permanently, in part to the outcry against animal abuse.  But elephants were sold to smaller circuses, or to owners who rent them to county fairs.  For example, at the 2017 Topsfield Fair, an elephant owned by R. Commerford and Sons, walked in circles for hours in the heat to give rides.  There was time when I, too, would have eagerly awaited my turn.  Now I know better.  I wonder how thirsty and in what small, windowless space will poor “Karen” be chained up later?

Mercifully, retirement to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee ( is an option. Visitors are not allowed, but “elephant cams” are mounted throughout the refuge for on-line viewing. More sanctuaries are opening where elephants can roam, freed from their days of abuse, performance, and confinement.

Yet remaining circuses resist because elephants and breeding baby elephants are big moneymakers. Ban elephant acts. Proverbs 12:10 says: Good people are good to their animals; the “good-hearted” bad people kick and abuse them.  (Or perhaps stand by and do nothing.  Think about it.)

This column ran nationally through GateHouse Media/More Content Now on 1/16/2018

Email Suzette Standring:

She writes for The Patriot Ledger and for GateHouse Media.


  1. Therese Desmond

    Thanks Suzette for bringing attention to the significant abuse elephants suffer in captivity. House Bill 418, a bill to ban elephant performances in the state of Massachusetts, is now before the House Ways and Means Committee. Without action by July 31, 2018 it will be the 13th year a bill of this nature has failed to be passed to the floor for a vote. Anyone interested is supporting this bill should contact their local representatives and ask for their support. Currently many small circuses traverse the state with elephants in trailers performing for the public. Already nine cities and towns have banned traveling wild animal acts. Thanks for shining a light on this archaic form of human entertainment.