Ringling Bros. Finally Frees Dumbo
The circus swears it treats its giant performers humanely—but with bans proliferating and America’s history of elephant abuse casting a long shadow, it was time to let the animals go.
P.T. Barnum would have known exactly how the circus that bears his name could capitalize on its decision to cease using elephants by 2018.
“See the elephants while you can!”
No doubt the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will indeed draw bigger crowds as the deadline nears.
But the self-imposed ban does not appear to be some Barnum-esque ploy. The “Greatest Show on Earth” simply seems to be weary of fighting proposed bans in ever more cities, towns, and counties
“Legislative whack-a-mole,” circus spokesman Stephen Payne said on Thursday.
Jurisdictions from Georgia to California have outlawed the use of “bullhooks,” goads that animal rights people decry as cruel but circuses insist are humane and needed to control elephants.
However humane present-day circuses may or may not be, the history of elephants in America is dominated by unconscionable cruelty. The Ringling ban can be seen as a kind of retroactive victory for the hundreds of elephants that were beaten, tortured, shot, and hanged over the years. An elephant named Tip was put on trial at the Central Park Zoo in 1894 for being uncooperative and sentenced to death via a method announced in The New York Times:
“Tip Tried and Convicted
The Central Park ‘Rogue’ Will Be Executed Tomorrow—
Poison Will End His Existence.”
In 1900, an elephant named Dick committed the capital crime of refusing to budge after an appearance with a circus at Madison Square Garden. A rope was looped around his neck and the ends were tied to two elephants that were prodded with bullhooks in opposite directions. The Times headline the next day read:
“Stubborn Elephant Dead
Killed by Two Others at Madison Square Garden
Refused to Move”
The accompanying article reported that 16 men labored on Dick’s carcass.
“It was found that there were 100 square feet of leather in his hide, 10 in his trunk, and 5 in his ears,” the Times reported.
In 1903, the elephant Topsy was outfitted with copper sandals connected to electrodes in an amusement park that was under construction in Coney Island.
The year before, Topsy had killed a man who had teased her by offering her a glass of whiskey, then pulled it back and tossed a lit cigarette into her mouth.
But that had been with a previous owner, and the killing had been universally declared a justifiable homicide. Her present crime was to have followed her trainer into the local police stationhouse and gotten stuck in the front door, scaring the desk sergeant. Her new owners did not want bad relations with the cops just as they were about to open Luna Park.
A camera crew dispatched by Thomas Edison was poised to make the world’s first snuff film as the signal was given and 6,600 volts coursed through the copper sandals into Topsy. The smoldering result can be seen on YouTube.
Topsy’s remains were buried in a remote corner of Luna Park. A group of elephants brought there two years later became so distressed by this unmarked grave that one named Fanny bolted for the beach. She swam through the early-morning darkness five miles to Staten Island, much to the shock of two inebriated fishermen in a rowboat she encountered.
The New York waters through which Fanny sought to flee were the same through which the sailing ship America had arrived with the country’s first elephant in 1795. The officer who kept the ship’s journal happened to be the father of novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“ELEPHANT on board,” he wrote.
The New York Journal reported the arrival at a Manhattan pier, writing, “The ship America, Captain Jacob Crowninshield of Salem, Massachusetts, commander and owner, has brought home an ELEPHANT from Bengal in perfect health. It is the first ever seen in America and is a great curiosity. It is a female, two years old.”
Elephants were big business from the start. Crowninshield had paid $500 for the creature in India and now sold her in New York for $10,000, described by a newspaper as “the greatest price ever given for an animal in Europe or America.”
The new owner, a Welshman known only as Owen, made his money back by charging 50 cents a peek (25 cents for kids) in a series of cities and towns, traveling at night so as to avoid giving free looks.
As there was no other such creature in America, this first elephant was named simply The Elephant. She was big enough to extinguish the life of anyone who beheld her, and yet she inspired no sense of danger. She evidenced no desire to dominate and gazed out as if from atop some living mountain of serenity. She seemed living proof that existence was about more than just tooth and claw and survival of the fittest.
The Elephant’s ultimate fate is not known. But the next two elephants to arrive on our shores—Old Bet and Lil Bet—were both fatally shot, one by a drunken farmer, the other by some roughneck boys seeking to test a claim that the hide was bulletproof.
Ever more elephants were imported, notably including Jumbo, who was Barnum’s biggest star in every sense until the creature was struck and killed by a train.
As the mere sight of anything but a celebrity such as Jumbo was no longer enough of a novelty to draw a paying crowd, elephants were taught tricks. The feats that drew our cheers and applause in fact obscured what they had to teach us about living large in the truest sense.
Our own species demonstrated something of itself when the elephants failed to do as they were told. They were often beaten until they were streaming with blood and cried out in surrender. A red hot iron bar was sometimes employed.
Bullhooks were routinely applied to such sensitive spots as behind the ears. The handlers insisted that elephant skin was too thick for them to feel it. That was proved a lie every time one elephant gently stroked another.
In more recent years, the business end of the bullhooks has gotten smaller and the beatings seem to have ceased at well-known shows such as Ringling Bros.
Even so, circus elephants are often seen exhibiting signs of stress known as stereotypic behavior: rocking back and forth, bobbing the head, swinging the trunk, shuffling the feet. Some trainers have written music in time to the swaying and announced that the elephants were dancing.
But nobody who really looked at the elephants could have imagined it was a happy dance.
Let us hope the dance will soon end for the 13 elephants that are touring with Ringling Bros. We can thank a host of people in a host of jurisdictions who seem to have convinced the circus that it was no use fighting one local legislative battle only to face another and then another.
The lucky 13 leave the road as representatives of all the many elephants that suffered so grievously before them.
Their rescuers demonstrated that we possess some of what The Elephant had to teach us when she arrived aboard the America more than two centuries ago.