This year, once again, there will be an elephant at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.
Every day, we learn more about how sophisticated elephants are. As a keystone species, these “gardeners of the Earth” are increasingly endangered due to poaching and human-elephant conflicts in their habitats. Decadeslong studies show that elephants are social, caring, altruistic beings with complex emotions and an intelligent system of communication; they understand present, past and future; they are self-recognizing, and as in the adage, never forget. Like us, every elephant is an individual with a distinct personality.
Because of the ongoing, devastating, worldwide ivory-poaching crisis and the quest to try to save the elephant from extinction in the near future, there is more awareness of the animal’s plight, both in the wild and in captivity. While ivory poachers are massacring wild elephants at the rate of one every 15 minutes so that humans can own ivory trinkets, trophy hunters shoot elephants for entertainment and elephants in captivity face the kind of prolonged cruelty that might warrant their picking a poacher over a circus trainer, if given a choice.
While the international community battles the poachers in Africa and the Chinese demand for ivory, 35 countries have banned the use of elephants for entertainment — 18 in Europe; 11 in South and Central America; four in Asia, and also Australia and Canada (bans in 28 municipalities). Shamefully, in the United States, circuses still use elephants in their performances. The elephants are trained by “breaking” them; they are shocked, whipped and beaten with the infamous bull hook, the use of which is being banned in some communities. Methods used in training circus elephants have been exposed in the video “Elephant Abuse Under the Big Top at Ringling Brothers Circus” and in the movie “An Apology to Elephants.”
As awareness of the plight of the elephant spreads, animal-rights groups are usually found at venues that use elephants or other wild animals, staging protests or trying to educate the public on the cruelty that goes into this training. Oddly, when normally friendly, kind people see signs that read “Be Kind to Animals,” they have been observed reacting with anger, vile language and threats.
In Minnesota, we are fortunate enough to enjoy circuses like Circus Juventas or Cirque du Soleil that don’t use outdated animal acts. However, we also have the Shrine Circuses that use elephants and the Renaissance Festival, which rents elephants from Texas-owned Trunks and Humps. The video “No Fun for Elephants” (narrated by Bob Barker) shows disturbing undercover footage of the abused elephant Krissy being beaten by her handler at Trunks and Humps, viciously dragged to the ground with a hook, then kicked in the face. Another video narrated by Jorja Fox tells Krissy’s full story.
No matter how severe, the methods of training cannot ensure that riders will be safe on the back of a large, wild animal. There have been several documented incidents of elephants endangering human lives or killing their trainers. Some elephants carry a form of tuberculosis that is transmitted to humans, and not all have been tested, as it is an expensive and difficult test to perform.
Elephant rides recently have been abandoned by several events, including the Orange County and Los Angeles county fairs in California, and the Santa Ana Zoo. They are blatant signs of brutality and are not necessary at medieval festivals that celebrate our traditions.
We are a proud, progressive society. Can’t we enjoy our celebration of history without involving an abused elephant? After all, does riding in a circle on the back of an elephant really make us feel better? Or does it simply contribute to the devastating cruelty?
Elephants are social animals that deserve to be treated with the same compassion and altruism that they show one another. They are not meant for entertainment. Keeping elephants out of entertainment and the Renaissance Festival would reduce their demand and the abusive tactics used by their owners. It’s what Minnesotans would want.
Letizia Kornberg, of Wayzata, is a teacher.