11 Facts About the History of Circus Elephants
This month, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the nation’s largest, announced that it would stop using elephants in its shows by May, retiring its 11 remaining circus elephants to its 200-acre elephant sanctuary in Florida. The circus had previously pledged to end its elephant acts by 2018.
Cities across the U.S. have passed regulations prohibiting elephant acts or the use of bullhooks (commonly used to discipline and control circus elephants), making it difficult for the circus to tour with its elephant performers. For decades, animal-rights organizations have been lobbying to end the use of elephants in entertainment shows, citing abuse and misconduct of the highly intelligent animals at the hands of trainers and circuses, particularly Ringling and its parent company, Feld Entertainment.
Elephants have been a major draw (and thus, source of revenue) for circuses and other exhibitions since the first Asian elephant arrived in New York City from India in 1796, as natural history filmmaker Ronald Tobias explains in his 2013 book Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America. For more than 200 years, Americans have been enthralled by the giant creatures, sometimes at the expense of the animals’ welfare. Here are 11 things you might not know about the long history of circus elephants in America.
1. THE FIRST CIRCUS ELEPHANT WENT ON TOUR BECAUSE SHE ATE TOO MUCH.
In 1805, Hachaliah Bailey bought an elephant thinking that he would plow his fields like a horse. But she ate too much to make her a worthwhile farm animal, so instead he decided to take her on the road as a spectacle. He charged people 25 to 50 cents to see her, and hid her behind a curtain so that non-customers couldn’t get a free peek. Bailey is now known as the father of the American circus.
2. THEY WERE BIG DRINKERS.
“Alcohol was the vice of choice for elephants,” Tobias writes in Behemoth. “They drank beer and wine but preferred bourbon and Tennessee whiskey when they could get it.” In 1922, a circus elephant named Tusko escaped and went on a rampage in Sedro-Wooley, Washington. After crushing a Model T and running through backyards, he burst into a local bar, and feasted on a big batch of sour mash. By the time he was caught, he had pushed a house off its foundation, knocked down walls, and crushed or overturned 20 cars.
3. ELEPHANTS IN GENERAL AREN’T AFRAID OF MICE—BUT CIRCUS ELEPHANTS OFTEN WERE.
As a handful of 1939 experiments showed, elephants aren’t naturally afraid of mice, as the stereotype suggests. However, early circus elephants learned to be terrified of scurrying rodents. Their feet and tails would regularly get chewed on by rats during the night. London zoo worker Matthew Scott wrote in the mid-19th century of his elephant charge, Jumbo: “Very often in the dead of night I have been awakened by poor Jumbo’s groans, as if in pain and trouble, and, when I hastened to see what was the matter, I have beheld the rats by hundreds gnawing his hoofs, and snapping viciously at his legs and tail.”
4. A CIRCUS ELEPHANT REDEFINED THE WORD JUMBO.
The London Zoo later sold that same rat-gnawed elephant, Jumbo, to American circus master P.T. Barnum (creating an international controversy at the time). Barnum had a gift for exaggeration, and he oversold the elephant as the biggest in the country when he arrived in 1882, despite the fact that he was about the same size as several other bulls in show business at the time. But Jumbo became so famous that his name became synonymous with “supersized.” While the word jumbo initially meant a socially inept goof, Jumbo the elephant made it synonymous with bulk, eventually leading to jumbo as a marketing tool—the jumbo jet, the Jumbotron, etc.
5. BARNUM AND BAILEY UNITED OVER A BABY ELEPHANT.
The rival showmen joined forces because Bailey needed more money, and Barnum needed the draw of a baby elephant. In 1880, a 15-year-old elephant gave birth to the second-ever elephant calf born on American soil, a female named Columbia. She was owned by James Bailey, an upstart circus owner who was fast becoming the biggest rival of established ringmaster P.T. Barnum. Columbia was such a huge draw for circus-goers that Barnum offered to buy her for $100,000. Bailey refused, and eventually Barnum offered him a sweeter deal: to partner up. Thus the Barnum, Bailey, and Hutchinson’s Consolidated Great London Circus & Sanger’s Royal British Menageries and the International Allied Show, also known as the Greatest Show on Earth.
6. TRAVELING WITH AN ELEPHANT WASN’T ALWAYS EASY.
Early circuses had to travel from one town to the other on foot, and when it came to crossing rivers, not every bridge was equipped to handle the weight of one or more 5-ton elephants. While many late 19th century circuses chose to ford their animals across rivers rather than test rickety Colonial bridges, some elephants did die crashing through unstable wooden spans. But when a bridge could hold an elephant, it reassured people that it could withstand anything. In 1884, the managers of the Brooklyn Bridge—where, the year before, there had been a fatal stampede caused by fears that the bridge was collapsing—decided to let P.T. Barnum and his menagerie cross toll-free, during the middle of the day. He marched 21 elephants and 17 camels across the bridge in an act that reassured people that the bridge wouldn’t collapse, even under the weight of the biggest crowds.
7. LIFE IN THE CIRCUS TURNED ELEPHANTS INTO SERIAL KILLERS.
Elephants regularly killed their trainers and keepers, other animals, and even innocent bystanders. Male elephants go through a months-long hormonal change called musth, during which they produce up to 60 times more testosterone than usual and become extremely aggressive, and early elephant trainers were unprepared for dealing with the giant animals’ behavioral volatility. Out-of-control elephants from zoos and circuses gored people, threw them into the air, intentionally crushed them underfoot, and sometimes even pushed cars on top of them in fits of rage. Bullets are no match for their thick skin, so there was often no way to stop the unpredictable violence. Nor is elephant violence just a historical problem: Even today, elephant keepers are killed by their elephants.
8. SOME ELEPHANTS FACED CRIMINAL CHARGES.
At the turn of the century, an English court charged a bull elephant named Charley with murder for killing his abusive former trainer. He was acquitted, but other elephants didn’t get off so easily. In 1916, an elephant named Mary killed one of her handlers, and the town of Kingston, Tennessee charged her with first-degree murder. She was later hanged.
9. THEIR BODY PARTS WERE SOUGHT-AFTER SOUVENIRS.
In 1902, a show elephant named Gypsy was executed by her owner after she killed her trainer, her fourth victim. After she was shot, several people who witnessed the execution cut off parts of her body to take home. In 1907, another longtime circus elephant, Columbia, was killed after her keeper decided she was too dangerous. Her teeth were turned into paperweights, and her skin into leather gloves and shoes.
10. BARNUM STARTED AN ELEPHANT FARMING CRAZE.
After he retired from the circus life, Barnum kept a single elephant. He’d have one of his farmhands take it out into a field and start plowing every time a nearby train went by. His elephant wasn’t a working part of the farm—it was all for show—but Barnum started a trend with actual farmers, who began investing in elephants as plow animals, and circus managers, who started making use of their stock in the off-season.
11. CIRCUS ELEPHANTS HAD THEIR OWN BASEBALL LEAGUE.
In the early 1900s, Barnum & Bailey’s chief elephant trainer decided to teach his charges how to play ball. He taught an elephant named Pilot to swing a bat, and another, named Bessie, to use a mitt. After two years of effort, he taught another elephant, Coco, to pitch. In 1912, they played their first game. Elephant baseball was a popular enough attraction that Ringling created its own team with nine pachyderm players, and other circuses later followed suit.