Don't make me hurt you. Photo by Jennie Warren
Don't make me hurt you. Photo by Jennie Warren

Dumbo and Dumber

The elephants feed on the dried grass and cover themselves with dirt provided by handlers, oblivious to the people watching from behind a chain link enclosure on the Arrowhead Pond parking lot. It's an hour before the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus's opens for a run that continues through this weekend, and the spectators look on quietly, awestruck, few seeming to notice the handlers exchanging their shovels and brooms for short sticks with heavy metal hooks at one end.

The handlers head back toward the elephants, the first to reach his animal moving the stick quickly, subtly. The movement, all of a few inches, isn't exactly menacing; rather, it suggests an intention to menace, and almost immediately the Asian female begins the process of lowering her girth down on one rear leg, then another.

The scenario is played out again by the next handler--and the next--in front of a crowd that doesn't seem to notice the hooks, perhaps because they are handled so deftly or perhaps because the sticks are usually black and easily hidden when held against a handler's black pants.

"How did he make it go down?" a boy asks a man who looks like maybe his grandfather.

Grandpa explains that handlers and elephants enjoy a sort of psychic bond: "They're pals."

Which is what the Ringling people say whenever asked about the sticks called bullhooks, though they never call them "bullhooks." Allowing that they are frightening-looking devices, they are, according to Ringling spokesman Andy Lopez, simply a "guide," an "accepted elephant management tool," an "extension of the trainer's hand" necessary when a 5-foot-8 man needs to "communicate" with a 10-foot elephant.

"Yeah," said elephant activist Carol Buckley, "they're communicating 'I'm going to hurt you big time.'"

When one handler seems less sure in his movements, has trouble communicating that he wants his animal to get up, a second man strides purposely toward it, glares and raises the bullhook slightly. The elephant gets up.

Just a few yards away, demonstrators from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) stand in one of the several Free Speech Zones provided around the arena. They hand out literature, show pictures of chained elephants and even offer an actual bullhook for inspection. Some people, grim-faced and serious, check out the material, brightening to snap pictures of their children hugging the woman in an elephant suit with bandages all over it. Then, most amble back toward the elephants.

The use of bullhooks on elephants is pretty dramatic and, as propaganda tools go, pretty powerful. PETA's website features video of handlers, none of them Ringling employees, hacking at legs; a handler in a smaller circus exhorts his colleagues to "make 'em scream." But activists say that chaining the animals in arena parking lots or train boxcars is far more dangerous. The long hours and the crushing weight produce arthritis that cripples them and, critics say, explains why circus elephants usually survive to just 35--about half of their life expectancy in the wild. Weeks before, PETA asked Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and the city council to ban the chaining of elephants within the city.

"Without the opportunity to move, you deprive the elephant of physical and psychological stimulation," Buckley said. "Being confined to small, sterile places in chains not only rots the feet, it attacks the mind, and the body crumbles under the disease of the mind. They are extremely intelligent beings that need stimulation. When you see any repetitive behavior from an elephant, such as the rocking back and forth, that's an elephant trying to create stimulation for itself. It's their coping mechanism. It comes down to cope or go insane."

PETA never heard back from Pringle, but then again they've never successfully convinced any of the mayors to whom they've written to pass such a law. But if mayors ignore PETA, Ringling hasn't. Walking onto the Pond parking lot, one is confronted with a veritable gallery of posters trumpeting the good works being done by Ringling's "Center for Elephant Conservation," especially its breeding program ("Endangered Species? Not If We Can Help It.") Ringling points to the Center as proof of its commitment to the Asian elephant. Shows featuring "routines that showcase their physical abilities and beauty," are seen as educational outreaches.

"When people see an endangered elephant," Lopez said, "they care more about that elephant."

But does someone care more about an elephant because it stands on its head? Do they learn more about it when it's walking with another elephant's tail in its trunk, a behavior never found in nature?

"Their defense is the same that zoos use," Buckley said. "Elephants as ambassadors. It's a smokescreen. These animals are bred to perform to turn a profit."

Raised in Anaheim and Fullerton, Buckley was the type of kid who begged her parents to bring her to the zoo and circus whenever possible so she could see the elephants. Eventually she became a trainer of performing elephants but gradually realized that the lifestyle of a performing elephant was "definitely not appropriate."

With partner Scott Blaise, she started the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, on just 100 acres. Nineteen elephants roam the facility's 2,700 acres; all of the elephants are from circuses and zoos, animals no longer able to turn a buck.

Janet Davis, who teaches at the University of Texas, has written about American circuses and is completing a book on the animal welfare movement, said elephants have "always been a measure of a circus's prosperity." After World War II, it was Ringling's boast that it featured 50. But with increasingly sophisticated nature documentaries, IMAX movies, and whole channels devoted to animals, Americans have become "increasingly uncomfortable" with wild animal performers, Davis said.

The exceptional success of Cirque du Soleil, which has never used animals, seems to suggest that people still love circuses, just not circus animals.

"We don't agree with the way the animals are dressed to do their tricks. We prefer to give jobs to human beings," said Cirque's Pierre Parisien, artistic director of Cirque's Saltimbanco, perhaps speaking for his customers. "They are animals, not performers. They should be in the jungle. We do not agree with the way they are trained, and I'm not sure the place of an elephant or a tiger is to stand in a cage half of its life and perform all around the world. We will never have animals in our shows."

There may come a day when Ringling no longer has animals either. In the Anaheim performance, there are no lions or tigers. Lopez said it's because they don't fit the show's "storyline." But the fact that the storyline is devoid of big cats may itself be a bow to Cirque.

Getting rid of the elephant will take more doing since, Davis said, "they have always been the central iconography of the circus . . . I think they'll get rid of elephants eventually, but it'll take time. I don't think Ringling wants to think they've lost."

And so, tonight, the elephants are led away to be outfitted to perform for tonight's show. The handlers march with them, their arms stiffly holding black bullhooks tight against their black pants. They direct the elephants past the tent where they sleep, past a platform strewn with heavy chains, past a baby elephant rocking back and forth.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >