I can admit it: I really don't know that much about training circus elephants. And I dare say most Juice readers don't either. But there is still something unsettling about seeing videos in which these magnificent beasts are slapped with sticks, shocked with prods, and left with deep gashes from training hooks.
This weekend, at the Hollywood Beach Latin Festival, the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida -- a local PETA-like group -- will canvass the crowd, circulating petitions asking the Broward County School District to stop supporting circuses that have performing elephants.
The district's "educational field trips only" policy ensures that students won't go in mass -- during the school day. But like most schools in the country, Broward hands out free and discounted tickets to students.
"That's how these circuses keep their shows on the road," explains ARFF's project coordinator, Amanda Burk. "They wouldn't exist if they didn't get schoolkids to go. Even take-home tickets send the wrong message to families that it's acceptable to abuse animals for entertainment."
Earlier this year, Ringling Bros. was forced to defend its training techniques in a California courtroom. According to the animal rights group, at least 25 Ringling Bros. elephants have died since 1992, including four baby elephants.
"These animals are supposed to live long lives," says Burk. "These elephants aren't getting old and passing away. Most are euthanized after so many captivity-related illnesses and injuries."
The videos of "undercover" circus investigations are disturbing to be sure. In this clip, one trainer is telling the other that he can't be gentle with the animals. "Hurt 'em, don't touch 'em," we hear in muffled audio. "Sink that hook into 'em. When you hear that screaming, you know you got their attention."
Detractors will argue that there are few places where average Americans can witness these creatures up close and that circuses are wholesome entertainment in the purest tradition. (Think cotton candy, big tents, balloon animals made by clowns that might not make children -- or adults, for that matter -- break into a steady stream of tears.)
"Is that really the image of a wild animal we want to portray?" asks Burk. "We're viewing animals that are abused and put in bad situations, and we can't appreciate them in a way that respects their nature. The abuse goes on behind the scenes. They make the show look fun. You think, 'These animals are having a good time,' but they aren't given a choice. They can't call in sick. They're forced to travel and perform night after night. They're forced to do this regardless."
In this video, a Ringling Bros. trainer slaps an elephant in the head and foot until she's rocking back and forth. It certainly doesn't look pleasant for the elephant, but what do I know?