The first step in training baby elephants to perform is to destroy the bond between them and their mothers. To do this, Ringling Bros. circus trainers would drag the babies away from their mothers. For up to 23 hours a day, the babies’ legs were tethered so that all they could do was stand in one spot on a concrete floor. No one would provide the babies with any mental or physical stimulation, and they couldn’t lie down, stretch their legs, or even turn around.
After up to six long months of standing in their own waste, these once curious and energetic elephants would then lose all interest in fighting back. Their spirits were broken. At that point, they’d be under the control of the trainers, who would 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.
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.
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 and Bailey Circus closed in 2017 after thirty-six years of PETA protests and documenting animals who were beaten, confined, and left to die. All other animal circuses, roadside zoos, and wild-animal exhibitors—including marine amusement parks like SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium—must take note. Society has changed, eyes have opened, and people know now who these animals are and that it is wrong to capture and exploit them.