Baby Elephants, Bound and Broken: How Ringling Trains Elephants

One elephant trainer in the circus had a change of heart and wanted to “do the right thing.”

Join him as he takes us through the process of how he, alongside many other trainers, forced elephants to learn how to perform unnatural tricks for “entertainment.”

Breaking the Mother-Child Bond

The first step in training elephants to perform unnatural tricks is to break the bond between babies and their mothers. When they are 18 to 22 months old, baby elephants are taken from their mothers’ sides by throwing a rope around their necks rodeo-style and tethering them to “anchor” elephants. All four legs of the multiton elephant moms are chained to the wall in order to restrain them and keep them from helping their babies.

The babies take one last look at their mothers and are dragged away.

Breaking the Elephants' Spirits

Next, the baby elephants must be mentally and physically broken. All four of their legs are tied together so that all they can do for up to 23 hours a day for up to six months is stand on a concrete floor. They are provided with no mental or physical stimulation, and they cannot lie down, stretch their legs, or even turn around. This is emotionally and physically devastating to a young elephant, who wants only to learn how to be an elephant alongside his or her family and who would normally travel up to 30 miles each day in the wild.

Crying to Be Free

The ropes used to restrain the baby elephants often are tied so tightly around their legs that the animals can incur deep and painful lesions. Their cries can be heard from outside the barn and intensify when they see their mothers walk into the barn.

No Will to Fight

After up to six long months of standing amid their own filth, these once curious and energetic elephants lose all interest in fighting back. Now that they are under the control of the trainers, basic training is complete. It’s time to train them to perform cheap tricks.

The baby elephants are bound by ropes and forced to learn how to perform a “down salute.”

And to lie down on command.

And to sit on tubs.

Force and the “tools of the trade” are used to make them comply.

Bullhooks—sharp metal weapons that resemble fireplace pokers—are stabbed into their chests in order to force them to stand.

For the rest of their lives, the elephants will be fearful of bullhooks. The mere sight of one will invoke terror, as the sharp metal tip of these weapons can easily wound elephants’ thin skin.

Trainers also use electric shock prods on elephants.

This barbaric and violent training process goes on in secret, out of the public's view and completely unmonitored by any federal, state, or local law-enforcement agency.

And when inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture do show up to investigate claims of abuse or neglect, trainers hide rope burns by putting mud on the elephants’ legs.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Train | Eli Christman | CC BY 2.0

Time to Hit the Road!

After a year of psychological and physical torment, the baby elephants are ready for the road.

They’ll be transported from place to place—traveling for up to 50 weeks a year and averaging 25,000 miles annually—while chained inside a tiny boxcar.

Circus Elephants | Laura Bittner | CC BY 2.0

Regardless of how exhausted the elephants are, the show must go on.

They will spend the majority of their lives in chains.

The only life these elephants will know will be a life of punishment, pain, and suffering in boxcars, circus tents, and parking lots.

Could You Go Through All This?

Will you help elephants used in circuses?

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