Remember the story of Dumbo? We all loved the adorable little elephant who overcame his difficulties and became the star of the circus show.
In the real world too, many elephants are the biggest draw in circuses. But their way up to the top is not easy. Their training, food, travel, and life in captivity have attracted the attention of many animal welfare organizations.
For many years, Asian elephants accompanied their large traveling circus units across the country. But, no longer.
Earlier this month, the last eleven elephants at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, USA gave their final performances at Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. And they all retired to a permanent home at the Centre for Elephant Conservation, Florida.
The word circus derives comes from "circle", as events would take place in a circular arena with the audience seated around the floor.
The modern circus as we know it, is around 250 years old. For many years, the shows mostly had displays of equestrian or horse-riding skills. This gradually grew to include musicians, clowns and other performers. In time, many trained animals came in as variety entertainment.
In the United States especially, the concept of a circus was a big hit. The main performance ring known as the Big Top got larger and grander over the years. Showing off exotic animals became a fashionable trend. One of the first animals was the elephant. Found only in Asia and Africa, elephants were relatively simpler to handle than wild predators.
Of all the circus organizations in the US, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus definitely ranks as one of the oldest. It was formed in 1919 after the merger of two of America's largest circus shows. The company runs touring shows billed as 'The Greatest Show on Earth' and until last month, regularly displayed elephants as a part of their event display.
Ringling Brothers Centre For Elephant Conservation
Animal activists worldwide started paying special attention to elephants, since they were trained with cruel-looking bull-hooks. These are now banned in many regions. The pressure from activists forced Ringling Brothers to become a part of several animal-welfare and breeding programs.
Animals were retired to well-established sanctuaries once they could no longer perform. Soon, the organization themselves set up a 200-acre elephant facility in Florida in 1995 and made plans to eventually retire all their elephants there.
As of last week, the entire herd of more than 40 elephants is living in Florida with dedicated caretakers. The large creatures are a part of breeding studies as well as a special pediatric cancer research program. You can read more about the elephant's remarkable resistance to cancer here.
Animal welfare activists are hoping that this will inspire all circuses to stop using animals in their acts in due time.