How Circus Training and Abuse Killed These Baby Elephants

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Posted September 22, 2015 by Kim Johnson

The first step in training baby elephants to perform is to destroy the bond between them and their mothers. To do this, Ringling Bros. trainers drag the babies away from their mothers. For up to 23 hours a day, the babies’ legs are tethered so that all they can do is stand in one spot on a concrete floor. They aren’t provided with any mental or physical stimulation, and they can’t lie down, stretch their legs, or even turn around.

Circus Elephants Lined Up

After up to six long months of standing in their own waste, these once curious and energetic elephants lose all interest in fighting back. Their spirits are broken. Now, they’re under the control of the trainers, who begin forcing them to do confusing and painful tricks through the use of violence and fear. This type of “training” and abuse is what killed these elephants:


Riccardo’s life began inside Ringling’s misleadingly named breeding facility, the Center for Elephant Conservation. After Riccardo’s mother, Shirley, gave birth—while she was chained by three legs—she made several desperate attempts to reach out and care for her newborn, but instead of allowing mother and baby to bond, Ringling’s trainers pulled Riccardo away.

When Riccardo was only 8 months old, he fell off a pedestal and broke his hind legs. Ringling trainers originally claimed that he had fallen while he was playing, but it was later revealed in court that Riccardo actually fell while he was being trained to get on the pedestal. His trainer admitted that he was holding a bullhook and that a rope was tied around Riccardo’s trunk when the baby elephant toppled over. The damage to Riccardo’s legs could not be treated, and veterinarians euthanized him. 

riccardo elephant screen grab


Kenny was just 3 years old when he died. In the wild, he would still be at his mother’s side, but in the circus, Kenny had to spend much of his time traveling around the country inside a cramped boxcar. One day in 1998, Kenny was reportedly very sick, but trainers still forced him to perform in two shows. 

According to the circus’s animal-care log, Kenny was “not eating or drinking.” He also was “bleeding from his rectum … had a hard time standing, was very shaky, walked very slowly,” and “passed a large amount of blood from his rectum.” Later that night, he died alone in his stall. 

kenny benjamin dead


Just a year after Kenny’s death, Benjamin died while he was traveling with Ringling. During a stop in Texas, he went swimming in a pond with another young elephant named Shirley (who would later give birth to Riccardo, mentioned above). When the elephants’ trainer commanded them to exit the pond, Shirley obeyed immediately, but being a young and curious elephant, Benjamin continued to splash and play in the water, ignoring the trainer’s commands.

The trainer then grabbed his bullhook and went into the water after Benjamin. Likely out of fear of the trainer and the bullhook, Benjamin moved away into deeper water and drowned. 


In 2005, an 11-day-old elephant named Bertha reportedly died. The circus did not announce her birth or death.

What You Can Do

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced that it plans to phase out the use of elephants in its performances by 2018. While this is a great victory it is not enough. For the next three years, elephants with Ringling will still be chained, hit with bullhooks,and crammed into tiny boxcars. Many of the elephants suffer from painful arthritis or carry tuberculosis, and their retirement day needs to come now.

Baby elephant with bullhook.

Three years is too long for a mother elephant separated from her calf, too long for a baby elephant beaten with bullhooks, and too long for an animal who would roam up to 30 miles a day in the wild but who is instead kept in shackles.

Never go to a circus that uses animals! Continue to speak up for animals abused by Ringling, and urge the circus to retire the elephants NOW.

peta2 circus pledge

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  • 469 days ago

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]


    Never go to a circus that uses animals

  • Profile photo of classic96695548

    471 days ago

    VN:F [1.9.22_1171]


    Sustainable mobility for prevention and action for the survival of elephants The largest living mammal on earth save this endangered elephants

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