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Three Faces of Elephant Captivity

By Russell Tenofsky

The psychological and physical toll that captivity takes on elephants has been all too prevalent lately. Three recent examples show why it is so abhorrent to keep elephants captive in circus and zoo environments.

Poster for the International Europe Circus. Features a clown on the front next to an elephant and a tiger.In Lizy-sur-Ourcq, France, an elephant escaped from her electrified enclosure and killed a 74-year-old man. According to witnesses, Tanya (also known as Samba), cleverly used a tarpaulin to cover the electrified fence before bolting from her pen.

According to reports, “witnesses saw the elephant take a tarpaulin and place it on the electric fence. It (sic) then escaped into a second area with barriers and trailers. The elephant was quickly caught by its keepers.”

Humans kidnapped Tanya/Samba from Kenya when she was one year old. According to workers for Cirque d’Europe, Tanya acted “angry and upset” after her last performance.

One Voice, an animal protection organization has scrutinized Cirque d’Europe’s treatment of Tanya/Samba. It was legal action by One Voice that caused Cirque d’Europe to try to distance themselves from the situation by changing Samba’s name to Tanya. Conditions, however, have not improved.

“We have gone to see Samba every two months,” said Muriel Arnal of One Voice. “She is on her own in the circus. She spends her nights is a small lorry trailer, and she performs a number that is contrary to her nature. We have always said that her place is not in this circus and that she could become dangerous. Any animal can become dangerous if it is mistreated.”

Tanya/Samba’s fate is uncertain, and her owners may end up killing her.

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Photo of an elephant using her trunk to splash herself with water.

Nina, a 50-year-old elephant at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI, is also currently suffering from a lifetime of captivity. This past August, a USDA inspector observed Nina’s “hip bones and shoulder blades were visible.”

Why is Nina so thin? “We were not provided access to the medical records, so we are not able to determine that,” USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said.

Without such records, the USDA found that Carson and Barnes Circus, which contracts with Circus World, to be noncompliant with the law.

However, Kay Backeus, a veterinarian who works for Carson and Barnes, argues that Nina suffers from nutritional, genetic or structural deficiencies that somehow occurred when she was in the wild, and that the USDA is on some sort of witch-hunt.

“This is what your tax dollars are paying for,” she said. “The USDA spends an inordinate amount of time wasting federal dollars, chasing people down that have elephants. She’s not in bad condition.”

The USDA plans to conduct an unscheduled follow-up examination.

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The recent rejection of a newborn baby elephant by his mother at the Shendiaoshan Wild Animal Nature Reserve in Rongcheng, China drives the point home that elephants do not belong in captivity. Zookeepers had to remove the newborn after his mother repeatedly tried to stomp him to death.

“The calf was very upset and he was crying for five hours before he could be consoled,” a spokesman said. “He couldn’t bear to be parted from his mother and it was his mother who was trying to kill him.”

In the wild, inexperienced mother elephants sometimes abandon their babies, too. But they live in large extended families, where aunts and grandmothers quickly step in to help and show the young mother what to do. In captivity, that kind of elephant society simply doesn’t exist.

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