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Captive Elephants in Circuses

By Varma Varma, S.R. Sujata, Suparna Ganguly, Shiela Rao

Category Reports

Circuses have a long history of using performing animals, both wild and domesticated. The animals are trained or conditioned to exhibit specific behaviours with no option to do otherwise. This report is based on the observation of 31 elephants belonging to a sample of seven circuses (out of 15 registered Indian circuses with a reported total of 65 elephants). The study of circus elephants and their handlers was needed due to insufficient information currently available on their physiology, welfare and management status which was paralleled by lack of information on their mahouts and handlers. The circuses were surveyed by recording information on space, facilities, manpower and funds. The main objective of the investigation was to evaluate the living conditions of the animals, their physiological, behavioural and health profile; and the divergence of these factors in the circus environment, as compared to elephants in the wild. Apart from a detailed investigation of the welfare aspects, each of the recommended parameters was rated on a scale of 0-10 with 10 representing living conditions closest to that of an elephant’s natural environment and 0 representing bad and unnatural conditions in relation to that parameter.
Rating values were graded in the following manner:
0.0 to 2.4 : Bad
2.5 to 4.9 : Poor
5.0 to 7.4 : Moderate
7.5 to 10.0 : Satisfactory
The results of this investigation showed 95% of the animals were either transferred, purchased or gifted, reflecting ratings of 2.9/10.0 for these circuses. All animals in circuses are kept for commercial use. When profit is the primary motive, then every single aspect related to the welfare of the animal is compromised. For example, constant shifting and transfer of elephants to different locations for economic gain sacrifices most aspects of welfare and is a source of chronic stress due to unfamiliar and unexpected surroundings.
Shelter type provided is unnatural, with absence of even semi-natural conditions. The mean rating for shelter types in all circuses is 2.5. The shelter was usually a tent pitched where the circus was performing within which the elephants were confined for the entire duration of their stay. The tents are fixed, with limited space available and are usually close to human habitation, high traffic density, subject to extremes of temperature and under conditions of water scarcity and lack of hygiene. All circus locations lacked availability of basic necessities such as a water-body to take care of temperature regulation and behavioural enrichment activities (play, socialization, bathing or wallowing in the mud essential for the animal’s maintaining a healthy and protective coating to repel flies/insects). Provision of running water was also absent, with restricted access to water. Mean rating for ‘drinking water source’ and ‘bathing water source’were 2.0 and 1.8 respectively with all the values ranging from 1 to 3. The shelter also formed the resting, feeding and sleeping place, implying no change in tethering sites resulting in a corresponding lack of basic hygiene. Unvarying confinement may lead to expression of abnormal behaviour like repetitive movements or stereotypy, etc. Space (shelter) in this context is defined as an ecological space as opposed to structural space, which should take care of the day-to-day needs (food, water and social interaction) of a species like elephants with minimal constraints imposed. The life of elephants in circuses is in stark contrast to the aspects witnessed in free ranging elephants.
Movement of the animals kept in the circuses is restricted with no provision to range free. The animals were confined to their shelters except during working or bathing; activities were undertaken in a severely restricted space. Thus, the animals spent nearly 20—23 h within cramped environment. Mean value for ‘chained status’is 0.0. Interaction occurs among the animals in these circuses. However, interaction is a complex behaviour, and an important component of learning. Learning is integral to the survival of a social species like elephants. The animal needs freedom to interact. This needs to be viewed in the context of chaining the animal for long durations which imposes restriction on the freedom to interact.
Chaining an animal, especially for long durations in the same place, results in monotony, restricts learning behaviour and imposes severe restrictions on interaction. Hence, the presence of more than one animal in a circus does not imply that the condition of interaction required for elephants is fulfilled.
Ninety Six per cent of the animals observed exhibited stereotypic behaviour (mean rating 0.43). Stereotypy (exhibition of unnatural repetitive body movements) is the result of chronic stress and trauma.
The circus elephant’s work-life routine comprises of monotonous daily routines, exposure to approximately 9 h of loud music and approximately an hour of exposure to 4000 watt halogen lamps.
Mean rating for ‘nature of work’is 0.33 and work type involved repeated performance of a few behaviours such as “pooja” or worship, ringing bells and “power behaviour” such as balancing itself on a stool or on one leg. Physical characteristics such as the elephant’s
weight, and the force needed to balance itself as a consequence of its sheer size make these power performances a considerable source of health risk and strain to the animal. The animals were put to work for most part of the year (8—12 months) for an average of three shows per day. The work type is also an imposition of inane, repetitive behaviours over which the animal has no control or choice.
All the animals were only stall fed. No opportunity for natural browsing or grazing existed or was even possible. Ideally, the food provided should take care of nutrition requirements as well as exercise. Exercise while eating involves stretching, stamping, pulling, bending, and moving. There is no scope for circus animals to have both nutritive and exercise-based foods.
Maintenance of records was very poor or absent. Records of the reproductive status or health were absent. This indicates total lack of professional management. Record keeping is an indication of how sensitive the company is towards the welfare of its animals. For instance, the absence of health records implies the absence of a welfare mindset and indifference to the well-being of the animal. Mean rating considered across all parameters is 4.3 with 58% of the ratings ranging from 0 to 3. Thus, this rating value suggests the extent of the occurrence of poor welfare status for the observed animals. Overall mean rating across all individual rating values for handlers’ welfare was 4.34 with 47% values occurring in the range of 0 to 3. The overall ratings suggest poor welfare status of the mahout/cawadi.


Katie Carroll

Date 2008
Edition 1
Pages 97
ISBN/ISSN 9788191046557
Publisher Compassion Unlimited PlusAction (CUPA) & Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF)
Language English
  1. Animal captivity
  2. Animal care
  3. Animal housing
  4. Animal roles
  5. Animal training
  6. Animal welfare
  7. Circus
  8. Circus animals
  9. Elephants
  10. Entertainment
  11. India
  12. Mammals
  13. performance
  14. Zoo and captive wild animals