Elephants are better than us. From their earliest moments in the wild, they learn the meaning of family, and they are taught empathy, proper communication, etiquette, survival skills, and love. Female elephants stay with their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins for life. Each member of the family plays an integral part in promoting loyalty and maintaining the cohesiveness of the group. The loss of one is a great loss for all. Consider then what happens when humans kill elephants for their tusks and the ivory trade or when adult elephants are separated from the babies so that the babies can be rounded up to be taken to zoos and circuses all over the world. This is the story of Beulah Mae, Karen, and Minnie who currently reside with the Commerford Zoo. This is also the story of Nosey, an African elephant who was stolen from her home in Zimbabwe in 1984 and brought to the United States to become a circus elephant.
Like Beulah Mae, Karen, and Minnie, Nosey was stolen from the wild. She was only 2 years old in 1984 when her mother and the adult members of her family herd were slaughtered in a cull perpetrated by the government of Zimbabwe. Sixty-three baby elephants were separated from their families and purchased by an eccentric millionaire, Arthur Jones, of Ocala, Florida who wanted to provide his wife with an elephant farm. The transport of these terrified baby elephants on a large airplane (known as Jumbolair) was documented by ABC News show 20/20 and was dubbed “The Flying Elephants.”
Nosey spent a few years with Jones before being purchased in 1988 by Hugo Tomi Liebel (aka Tommy Liebel, Hugh Blum, or Hugo Bloom) of the Liebel Family Circus (aka Florida State Family Circus, Great American Family Circus, Liebling Bros. Circus, or Liebling Bros. Family Circus) of Davenport, Florida. She has been held captive, alone, ever since. She gives rides and performs in fairs, flea markets, festivals, and private events and hasn’t been allowed the company of another African elephant (though the Liebels have had no other elephants since Nosey’s purchase, they were documented to have had at least one and possibly two other baby elephant deaths). She has been exhibited under the stage names Tiny, Peanut, and Dumbo and is often contracted out to work in other circuses, such as the Hamid or Garden Brothers Circuses. Her “normal” route takes her from Florida in the winter, up the Eastern seaboard as far north as Maine, and back through the Midwest and Texas.
The stress of travel and performance hangs over the heads of circus/ride-giving elephants like Nosey and the Commerford elephants, and the stress rarely goes away. Because of it, traveling elephants suffer egregious ailments such as foot disease, osteoarthritis, and various other debilitating issues which can lead to an early death.
Why would we, as humans, wish to place an intelligent creature like an elephant in such a situation? Why wouldn’t we want them to live the life they were placed on earth to live? What gives us the right to treat them with such personal disrespect and have no empathy for their plight?
I am grateful the Nonhuman Rights Project has worked to raise these questions with a lawsuit filed today that asks a common law court to consider elephants not as legal “things,” but rather, legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty. Recognizing the “personhood” of captive elephants such as Beulah Mae, Minnie, Karen, Nosey, and so many others like them would have a huge impact on their individual lives and push forward the right agenda for this incredible species as a whole. They would no longer be seen as mere objects or property to be used and abused at the will of man. People like Hugo Liebel and the Commerfords would be forced to provide an independent life for these elephants in true sanctuary. Ending the exploitation of these beings would be in keeping with the current climate of the anti-circus movement and reflect the evolving morality and scientific research behind its necessary demise.
Last week, just prior to the NhRP filing suit on behalf of Beulah, Karen, and Minnie, Nosey was unexpectedly seized from her abusive circus family in a small town in Alabama because of complaints from locals about her circumstances when the circus family that “owns” her was forced to stop for vehicle repairs. The local animal control office, supported by the Sheriff and the county District Attorney, were granted temporary custody of Nosey and the ponies that comprised the circus animal entourage. An emergency hearing was held in which the seizure was upheld for 30 days. At that time, a trial will be convened to hear arguments regarding custody of the animals. Nosey was quickly moved to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee where she will be socially and medically evaluated while enjoying some basic freedoms that she has not had since she was 2 years old. I thank the local Alabama officials for pushing through the right agenda in this instance, and I support their efforts to keep Nosey in true sanctuary. I hope the powers that be in Connecticut do the same for Beulah, Karen, and Minnie.
Elephants are better than us. They never would have enslaved us for their entertainment or for profit. They have evolved well beyond our capacity for compassion and empathy. They are deserving of personhood rights, they are deserving of sanctuary, and for their sake and ours, they must have both.