What Ringling owes its retiring animals

The soon-to-shutter Ringling Bros. Circus just rolled into Brooklyn for the last time. On March 3, the curtain will close on the circus’ final New York City show.

After the lights go down and Ringling finishes up its final national tour, what’s to become of the dozens of animals used in the circus?

Having begun my legal career more than a decade ago advocating for the animals who have been abused to line Ringling’s pockets, I was thrilled to learn that, with the circus shuttering this spring, these animals will no longer endure this violent exploitation.

I can’t, however, help but be immensely concerned about their fate. Having profited so greatly off their backs, Ringling owes it to the lions, tigers, kangaroos, camels and scores of other animals to see that they are rehomed in reputable sanctuaries where they can finally, if only briefly, have the opportunity to be the creatures they were born to be, no longer confined to cramped cages for hours and even days on end, no longer beaten into submission every time they dare to display a natural behavior.

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But if the fate of the elephants that the circus “retired” last year is any sign, Ringling, and its parent company Feld Entertainment, won’t be doing anything of the sort.

Today, Ringling’s elephants are held at a Florida compound where, according to the sworn testimony of the facility’s general manager, elephants are chained for 16 hours a day on average, and sometimes for up to 22.5 hours — despite the fact that elephants in the wild are active for about 18 hours a day.

According to an elephant expert who inspected the compound under a court order, the elephants have spent so much time chained that they have worn grooves into the concrete. And while wild elephants range thousands — and sometimes more than a hundred thousand — acres, the elephants at Ringling’s compound have access to just about one third of an acre per elephant.

Though the elephants are no longer forced to travel and perform, Ringling also insists on continuing to handle them with cruel and outmoded bullhooks — weapons with sharp hooks on the end that resemble fireplace pokers and are used to hurt and punish elephants.

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These are tools that sanctuaries eschew, most zoos have phased out and many jurisdictions have banned.

As if that weren’t enough for these long-suffering, sensitive animals, they’re also shocked with electric prods. Chilling photographs from the compound even show electric prods and bullhooks used on baby elephants. As a former Ringling trainer testified, “Raising a baby elephant at Ringling is like raising a kid in jail.”

These majestic animals, who have endured so much, deserve better than jail— much better. That means they also shouldn’t be shipped off to zoos to be used as breeding machines, as Ringling has recently done with a handful of elephants.

Zoos across the country have closed their elephant exhibits, recognizing the impossibility of meeting the needs of these complex, sensitive, intelligent and social animals in a zoo setting. Those zoos that continue to hold elephants are fighting a losing battle, and inflicting great suffering in the process. They insist on continuing to breed elephants — sometimes forcibly-only to have their offspring die prematurely.

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As the Seattle Times reported, “The infant mortality rate for elephants in zoos is almost triple the rate in the wild,” and “for every elephant born in a zoo, on average another two die.”

The United States is blessed to have not just one but two accredited elephant sanctuaries, one in California and one in Tennessee, both of which I’ve been fortunate to visit. At these refuges, retired circus and zoo elephants roam vast acreage in the company of other elephants, never again subjected to punishment.

We also have reputable sanctuaries for other species of animals — some of which have already proactively reached out to help Ringling with placing the more than 100 animals that records show are currently on the road with the circus, including 28 tigers, 6 lions, 1 leopard, 2 kangaroos, 7 camels, and many others.

Of course, lifetime care for these animals, many of whom suffer from injuries and illnesses as a result of their abuse, doesn’t come cheap. But with nearly 150 years of profiting off of animal abuse, it’s really the least the circus can provide.

Winders is the academic fellow in Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Program.

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Source: Ny Daily News

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