Meet the Elephants

May 9, 2015

Animals used in circuses such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey live a dismal life in which they are dominated, confined, and violently trained. Workers routinely beat, shock, and whip them until they learn to perform ridiculous tricks that make no sense to them.


Most elephants used by circuses were captured in the wild. Once removed from their families and natural habitat, their lives consist of little more than chains and intimidation. Some baby elephants are born on breeding farms, where they are torn away from their mothers, tethered with ropes, and kept in isolation until they learn to fear their trainers. Throughout their lifetime, all that they will ever know is extreme loneliness and beatings with sharp bullhooks.

Starting with a 2009 investigation, PETA has documented cruelty to more than 20 elephants—ranging in age from just 2 years old to at least 54—who are on the road with Ringling. These sensitive and intelligent animals have spent an average of 30-plus years with the circus, and four elephants have each been in Ringling’s possession for 43 long years.

These are just a few of the elephants who have been forced to perform with the circus in recent years:

Barack is a 2-year-old elephant born at Ringling’s Florida breeding compound. He is forced to endure life on the road with his mother, Bonnie, whose lack of natural, maternal behavior toward Barack has alarmed elephant experts. In early 2010 and again in 2011, Barack was diagnosed with the elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), a common killer of young, captive-born Asian elephants. EEHV is associated with stress, and symptoms include a pale or bluish tongue, swelling of the head and neck, and lethargy. Death is caused by massive internal hemorrhaging and heart failure. Barack was pulled from the show after his second diagnosis, and Ringling has not spoken publicly of his fate since then.

Nicole is a 34-year-old elephant who looks and acts twice her age, according to experts. Her front legs turn out, her wrists bow, and she has abnormal, swollen lumps on both front legs. Problems with feet and nails are a leading reason for euthanasia of captive elephants; all of Nicole’s foot pads are overgrown and discolored, and she has evidence of abscesses on her nails. She has lameness consistent with arthritis, painful bone bruising, and ligament or tendon damage in her right knee, which manifests as instability on that limb. She grimaces in pain while walking and has difficulty exiting the train cars, scraping her back on the undersized doorway.

Sara is a 9-year-old survivor of the cruel training practices used by Ringling that were brought to light by whistleblower Sam Haddock. She is underweight, as is indicated by her very sunken face and prominent skull bones. Sara has suffered from chronic lameness since early 2009, but Ringling has not conducted adequate diagnostics, developed a treatment plan, or ensured that she receives prescribed treatments. Sara displays a high intensity and frequency of abnormal behaviors, including swaying and head-bobbing. She appears to be nervous around people and shows fear responses toward her trainer. She frequently thumps her trunk on the ground, an common indicator of anxiety, and she may walk with her mouth open, a sign of abdominal discomfort or thirst.

Karen is a 42-year-old elephant who was born in the wild in Asia. Experts have deemed her to be in such poor condition that the humane option would be to allow her to retire. Late in 2010, Karen was granted a reprieve and permitted to stop traveling, but as of March 2011, she is back with the Blue Unit. Karen is being forced to perform unnatural “tricks”—such as lifting a basket with a dog inside it with her mouth while standing on a rotating pedestal—despite needing veterinary care for dental problems and overgrown, inflexible foot pads, a condition that is painful and predisposes her to osteoarthritis.

Meet some of the elephants forced to travel with Ringling’s Red Unit:

Tonka was born in captivity and has been with Ringling since about 1989. PETA captured on video an incident in which the 28-year-old elephant was hooked behind the ear, causing her to scream and bleed, while the elephants were being walked from the arena to the train in Austin, Texas. Her brother, Kenny, suffered a worse fate. In 1998, 3-year-old Kenny, who had been bleeding from his rectum and was clearly very sick, died alone in a stall after being forced to perform despite being sick. As a result, Ringling was charged with violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act and paid $20,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Luna, an Asian elephant, is considered to be especially dangerous. Like Tonka, she and her siblings have also suffered horrible abuse at the hands of the circus industry. Luna’s brother Ned was found to be emaciated and was confiscated from circus trainer Lance Ramos-Kollmann in 2008. Ned was placed at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where he died on May 15, 2009. Luna’s brother Benjamin drowned on July 26, 1999, when he was only 4 years old, as he tried to move away from a trainer who was jabbing him with a bullhook while he was swimming in a pond.

Angelica, 14, has been held captive by Ringling since the day that she was born. In 1999, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report stated that there were large lesions on Angelica’s leg, and a Ringling employee said that the scars were caused by rope burns resulting from the violent and terrifying process of separating Angelica from her mother. In January 2006, the USDA cited Ringling for causing trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm, and unnecessary discomfort to Angelica and another elephant who suffered injuries after the two elephants ran amok while performing in Puerto Rico.

Assan, Banana, and Baby were born in the wild in Asia, and all three have been with Ringling since about 1968. A humane officer discovered lacerations consistent with bullhook wounds on Assan and Baby during an inspection in California. A former Ringling employee reported that the elderly Banana, who suffers from arthritis, was not being given medication to help alleviate the pain.

Help the elephants who are held captive and beaten by Ringling Bros. Take action now!