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On World Elephant Day, meet Nosy and the 64 other elephants who still perform in circuses

Today is World Elephant Day, and advocates say there are some things to celebrate.

For one, it appears that less than 5 percent of elephants are now illegally killed each year — the first time the number has dipped below 5 percent since 2009. This is important because the elephant populations normally grows at about 5 percent a year, so this number might hint at a recovery. Meanwhile, ivory prices are plummeting, meaning the primary driver of poaching — consumer demand — is leveling off.

In the US, the good news is that public opinion has shifted on circus elephants, which is big reasons why Ringling Bros. Circus ended its 135-year-old tradition and retired all of its elephants a few months ago.

It's only more recently that the general public has gotten a glimpse of how terribly circus elephants are treated. In 2008, one animal rights group posted a video showing trainers using "bullhooks" — sharp metal tools that look like spears — to force the elephants to move and stop at specific points. One of the elephants in that video has a bloody ear. There are dozens more videos like this.

Meanwhile, the magazine Mother Jones published a year-long investigation in 2011 illustrating how circuses — specifically Ringling Bros. — are willing to put elephants through a living hell to put on a good show. It was titled "The Cruelest Show on Earth," and described an elephant, Nicole, being punished for missing her cues. One of the animal attendants told the magazine:

I always rooted for her, 'Come on, Nicole, get up.' But we left the show, brought the animals back to their area, and … we took the headpieces off, and as I was hanging them up, I heard the most horrible noise, just whack, whack, whack. I mean, really hard. It's hard to describe the noise. Like a baseball bat or something striking something not—not soft, and not hard.

Still, 17 circuses continue to use elephants in their shows

But even with Ringling Bros. Circus retiring its elephants, there are still plenty of shows in the US that use elephants — and there are few regulations that ensure they are treated properly.

A PETA spokesperson estimated that in the United States, circuses and traveling acts own 69 elephants. Not all elephants travel with the shows, because of injuries or because they are used for breeding.

We couldn't find all 69 of these elephants. But we were able to find 65 using government inspection records from 2015 and 2016. You can click them to learn more below about where they live, who owns them, and any complaints — from advocates or inspectors — against their owners.

The United States conducts surprise inspections of circus elephants. Is that enough?

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is a government agency, oversees these elephants' welfare. Inspectors conduct unannounced visits about once a year to people who have a license. The Animal Welfare Act mandates that certain standards be followed:

  • Handling of animals should not "cause trauma, overheating, excessive cooling, behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort."
  • Physical abuse is not allowed.
  • One cannot deprive animals of food or water for training purposes — at least not for a long time. Short term is okay.

In 2015, there were at least 54 inspections of American circuses with elephants. There were six instances when circuses (or those providing elephants to circuses) did not comply with the law. The circuses were given a certain amount of time to fix the problem.

But what happens if there is an especially bad case? Or if there are repeat violations?

Punishment for violating the Animal Welfare Act is weak. And owners keep their elephants.

When inspectors find a problem, the government opens an investigation, an APHIS spokesperson says. And if the investigators decide to punish the licensees, they have three options:

  • An official letter of warning, which carries no monetary fine
  • A "stipulation," which is a fine — but the amount is decided between APHIS and the violator
  • Or it's escalated to an administrative law judge, who can levy a fine or take away the license

There's worry in the animal rights community that these punishments are ultimately far too lax. Consider elephant owner Hugo Liebel, who piled up 33 noncompliances and was only fined $7,500 — an amount Liebel and APHIS settled upon. Advocates say the law doesn't go far enough in protecting elephants.

Oh, and even with 33 noncompliances, Liebel kept his elephants.

But the bigger question: Should we keep such smart animals in captivity at all?

Some advocates say elephants should not be kept in captivity at all, even in zoos. There are currently about 300 elephants in accredited US zoos, and there are reports of many of them living — and dying — in terrible conditions.

One argument is that elephants need more space, although perhaps not as much as activists say they need:

Plus, some studies show captive elephants live significantly fewer years on average compared with elephants in the wild. (Some scientists refute the methodology, saying this exaggerates the difference, and say zoos are working on this.)

We now know elephants are smart and social creatures

Because elephants aren't native to North America, having elephants in the US often means that they have to be taken from Africa or Asia — and are ripped away from their families. This is especially traumatic because female elephants are social creatures that live in groups, but they are sometimes kept in enclosures by themselves at zoos.

Baby elephants are also part of the herd, and are entirely reliant on their mother for the first six to 24 months of their lives. So some believe taking baby elephants away from their mothers, either from the wild or in captivity, can be quite traumatic. And efforts of breeding them in America have taken some bad turns.

Oh, and elephants are quite smart. They have the largest brain of land animals — and it's not just because they're so big. They have bigger-than-expected brains for animals their size.

But elephants in captivity might help raise awareness to stop them from going extinct

That said, pro-zoo folks argue that recent advancements in how to provide a suitable environment has helped greatly. In addition, they argue that having elephants raises awareness for elephants — and that's crucial because the elephant population has been shrinking drastically, largely because of poachers.

In other words, wild elephants could be extinct in a few decades, and, at this rate of decline, it may be quicker for African elephants. Perhaps having elephants in zoos will show Americans why they should give money to save these creatures.

For now, even some circus owners agree: Having elephants in circuses is unethical

So let's rehash: There is an animal we've found to be clever that is on the brink of extinction — largely because of humans. And in this country, in 2016, we continue to allow humans to transport elephants in trains, force them to perform physical feats that are damaging to their anatomy, and make them do this in front of other people who pay money for it.

In fact, it's unclear what will happen first: the end of circus elephants or the extinction of African elephants.

But even circus owners are starting to think this isn't right.

Bill Cunningham, owner of the George Carden International Circus, plans to retire elephants in 2019 because the act "doesn't appeal to our higher selves and I think we as a society have evolved in too many other areas for that practice to continue unchanged."