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Baby Elephants, Bound And Broken: This Is How Circuses Train Elephants

An elephant trainer with the biggest circus in the United States—the now-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey 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.”

“These are classic pictures of professional elephant-training,” according to one of the trainers in the photographs.

Breaking the Mother-Calf Bond

Even though female elephants stay with their mothers for life and males until their early teens, the first step in training elephants to perform tricks is to break the bond between babies and their mothers. When they are 18 to 24 months old, calves are roped by all four legs and tied by the neck to an “anchor elephant” who leads them away from their mothers. The frantic moms are restrained by having all four legs chained to the wall while the babies try to run away and fight having the ropes put on.

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

Breaking the Elephants’ Spirit

Next, the baby elephants are mentally and physically broken. All four legs are tied to a bar so that all they can do for up to 23 hours a day for up to six months is stand on a concrete floor. This is emotionally and physically devastating to young Asian elephants, who want only to learn how to be an elephant alongside their family. In their natural habitats, they would spend nearly all their waking hours walking, grazing, dust-bathing, swimming, and socializing.

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, which can be heard from outside the barn, intensify when they see their mothers walk into the barn.

No Will to Fight

After up to six long months of fighting their restraints, these once curious and energetic elephants are broken. When they stop trying to run away from their trainers during daily walks, circus training begins in earnest.

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.

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

Time to Hit the Road

elephants in line by boxcars at circus

They’ll be transported from place to place for weeks on end.

Regardless of how exhausted the elephants are, the show goes on.

They will spend the majority of their lives in chains.

Will You Help Elephants Used in Circuses?

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