A problem of elephantine proportions

Taken from the wild for a long lifetime of captivity

Elephants are considered to be a species particularly unsuited to life in captivity, especially circuses, where experts agree that their complex needs simply cannot be met (Iossa 2009; Clubb 2008; Harris 2008).

Despite the widely publicised and serious concerns for the welfare of elephants in circuses, in 2012, the Courtney Brothers’ Circus toured Ireland with five Asian elephants: Baby (or Bebe), Pyra, Dana, Belinda and Sabine, all of whom are owned by Joy Gärtner[1].

According to the most comprehensive database of elephants in captivity, all five of the elephants touring with Courtney’s were originally taken from their natural home in the wild.

Foot and mouth disease concerns as circus trainer bypasses European Commission on elephant import

Transporting five elephants to Ireland is no mean feat and, if carried out to the letter of the law, circuses must follow strict transport regulations to ensure that animals being moved from country to country do not bring with them dangerous diseases or infections. In January 2011 news came to light that four of the elephants that would be later used by Courtney’s were ‘stranded’ in Morocco as a result of animal health legislation.

Having spent more than six months in Morocco, “under European rules they have technically acquired the ‘nationality’ of the country where they are,” an EU spokesperson told news agency AFP (AFP 2011). The agency reported: “Morocco, however, has no regulations on animal health compatible with EU rules and suffers moreover from foot and mouth disease (FMD).” Asian elephants appear to be “significantly more sensitive to infection” to FMD than their African cousins (Mahy 2005). In fact, outbreaks of FMD amongst farmed domestic animals in Morocco and other North African countries have been well documented, with evidence associating epidemics with the importation of infected animals (FAO 1999).

Time dragged on, the elephants remained in Morocco, and Gärtner’s costs for keeping them there rocketed. The AFP press agency reported that Gärtner was threatening to put the elephants down. An EU spokesperson responded: “He doesn’t seem to have done his homework before leaving.”

After remaining in Morocco for more than a year, and despite Gärtner having been given clear advice on the correct way in which to return to the EU with the elephants, the French Ministry of Agriculture apparently stepped in and allowed the elephants to enter France in August 2011. By November, the elephants were back in the circus ring in Paris before being moved to Ireland in January 2012.

However, in April 2012, the European Commission’s Spokesperson on Health & Consumer Policy told Freedom for Animals: “The Commission is not aware of the elephants having come back to EU soil. The Commission’s position on this issue has always remained the same: a ban on imports of live animals from Morocco (or re-entering into the EU of the elephants in question) since Foot and Mouth (FMD) disease is endemic in Morocco. Morocco is considered endemic of FMD and allowing such imports could put the farming community at risk”.

He added: “The Commission was indeed not informed by the French authorities that the elephants had been imported to France”.

The French Ministers of Agriculture and Environment have both failed to respond to repeated correspondence from Freedom for Animals questioning their involvement in the importation of the elephants from Morocco which, from the information provided, appears to be in direct contravention of EU regulations put in place to protect animals from disease.

Baby escapes

On 27 March 2012 one of the Courtney Brothers Circus elephants, Baby, escaped from the circus, ran down a road and into a shopping centre car park in Blackpool, County Cork (Irish Examiner 2012). Video footage taken by an office worker on his mobile phone from an overlooking building was used in media worldwide and viewed 140,000 times on YouTube within days (irishexaminer 2012). The story made international news and led to renewed calls to retire the elephants; not only in order to protect the welfare of the animals themselves but because failing to adequately confine an elephant (a species defined under UK law as a ‘dangerous wild animal’) should be seen as a failure to protect circus staff and the public.

The video footage clearly shows the elephant behaving in a panicked manner as she is grabbed by a circus worker who tries to gain control of her. One minute into the filming, another worker arrives and tries to assist but Baby panics further, starts to run and the two men move quickly away from her. Then, as she runs towards the car park exit and onto the road, the first worker begins jabbing her sharply with an ankus, also known as a bullhook, a metal rod with a sharp point used to ‘control’ elephants. Baby continues to run along the road, under the office window. The footage reveals the person filming running to another window to continue filming as the elephant, followed closely by the two men – one continuing to jab with the ankus – runs towards a main road. The video ends as the elephant disappears from view.

The circus played down the danger caused by 2.5 tonne of pachyderm charging through a car park and a busy road junction. “If it was a dangerous animal we wouldn’t have it in the circus”, said Jim Conway, general manager of the circus (O’Connell 2012).

Simon Adams, a Zoo & Wildlife Veterinary Adviser, has experience with elephants in captive situations. He offered his thoughts on the video footage of Baby’s escape and the attempts to catch her:

This is a pretty classic example of the ‘predictably, unpredictable behaviour’ of trained wild circus elephants, in my opinion. The term ‘accident waiting to happen’ applies here I believe. They were fortunate indeed this time that this animal didn’t cause a traffic accident or trample anyone.

“It is not possible to say with certainty what stimuli were motivating this elephant from the video clip, however she was clearly ‘distressed’ by many strange stimuli, such as unfamiliar territory, the general alarm of the people around her, noises and shouting etc, all adding to her confusion and alarm. However, it does seem to me that the presence of the keeper with the ankus caused her to decide to flee from the scene at the sight of the noxious pain inflicting stimulus that even the sight of the ankus produced.

“I can only speculate here, but if she was merely contained by an electric fence, then this in my opinion is insufficient to deter an elephant determined to escape the circus’ outside enclosure, and probably explains how she got out.

Freedom for Animals had previously warned of the dangers of using elephants in circuses following publication of the 2006 study. That report questioned the adequacy of the electric fence containing the two elephants then at the Royal Russian Circus (the name previously used by Courtney’s). The fence appeared not to always be switched on, despite it being the only means of protecting the public from the animals when they were in the field. In addition, the circus was criticised over the ease of access that members of the public had to the elephants with little supervision from staff. The report warned that “in allowing the public such contact with such an animal there is always a risk of a dangerous incident occurring” (Freedom for Animals 2006).

Circus visitor crushed by “drugged” elephant

Four days after Baby’s dramatic escape from the circus, a 31-year-old Spanish man, Justino Muños, was seriously injured whilst feeding the elephants. Muños, a friend of one of the circus workers, was rushed to Cork University Hospital with several broken ribs and a punctured lung after an elephant fell over and crushed him on a concrete floor. His injuries were so severe that doctors had to put him in an induced coma (Cashell 2012).

Joy Gärtner again repeated his claim that the animals “are not dangerous”. “I let my own son play with them. It’s something I would not do unless I was 100 per cent sure of his safety”, he said (Carr 2012).

Following the incident, the circus had blood and urine samples from the elephants tested; claiming they feared the animals’ food had been ‘tampered’ with. Tests found traces of paracetamol and morphine in the samples taken from the elephant who escaped in March and the one who crushed the worker. Media reports did not confirm whether the drugs were also found in the other three elephants at the circus (Riegel 2012b). The circus claims that neither elephant was on veterinary medications at the time and that it suspects the drugs were administered through their food or water (Riegel 2012b).

The circus implied that the elephants had been drugged by a third party and used to the results to explain away Baby’s escape and the injury to Muños. However, in a sign that the veterinary lab was perhaps not in agreement with the way that the results were used publicly by the circus, laboratory director, Lucy Gaffney, said it was ‘highly unlikely’ the presence of these drugs would have caused the elephants to behave in the unusual way they had. ‘The presence of these drugs would not necessarily have resulted in that sort of frenzied behaviour. The test for opiates covers a wide variety of drugs, including codeine, which turns into a morphine-like substance in the body’, she said” (Irish Times 2012).

Serious concerns were raised again by Freedom for Animals and other groups with regard to both the risk to the animals following the “drugging”, as well as the clear danger to visitors to the circus. Despite repeated calls to retire the elephants, it does not appear that any formal action has been taken against the circus as a result of either the drugging or the hospitalisation of Muños, who later recovered from his injuries.

Parading elephants continues despite clear safety risks

Freedom for Animals first raised concerns about the public safety risks of parading elephants through public streets in its report on Irish circuses in 2006, which was sent to local authorities with the aim of preventing a recurrence of these stunts. Despite this, Courtney’s have persisted in using its five elephants in public parades throughout 2012. Even the serious incidents involving the circus’ elephants outlined above did not stop the circus continuing with such publicity stunts. Press images show members of the public close to, or touching, the elephants with no barriers between them.

The Republic of Ireland has no legislative equivalent to the UK’s Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 or the Dangerous Wild Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 2004, which licenses the keeping of specific species (such as elephants). Although circuses are exempt from this legislation whilst the animals remain within the boundaries of the circus site, once they are removed from the confines of the area, such as when being paraded down a public street, a licence under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act/Order is required as there is a clear risk to public safety.

As such, under UK and NI law, the parade of elephants carried out by Courtney Brothers Circus would be illegal without a licence. However, the failure of the Republic to introduce such legislation allows circuses with elephants to continue to use elephants in a way which creates unacceptable risks to the safety of the public.

Following Baby’s escape at Blackpool, Freedom for Animals sought comments from local authorities where elephant parades had taken place.

Wexford Borough Council told Freedom for Animals they were not happy about the stunt that took place in the town. The Town Clerk had not been made aware that the circus was planning the parade so were unable to send officials to monitor public safety but he did have concerns. He said that he “wrote to the circus … expressing our view that we were unhappy with events of this kind going ahead without permission.”

Carlow’s council saw the matter differently and was more concerned about any potential cleanliness issue: “We would have issues with regards to fouling and would expect it to be cleaned up” (Carlow People 2012).

The less concerned attitude of Carlow Council in 2012 is in contrast to its reaction in 2006 when a representative told Freedom for Animals that, after hearing of the incident, he reported it “to all Senior Local Authority officials in Carlow County Council and Carlow Town Council. The matter was reported to the Gardai who also monitored the circus during the remainder of its run in the area to prevent a repeat of the incident.”

However, it appears that no long-term changes were made within the authority’s area.

Time for change

In 2006, Freedom for Animals warned that keeping elephants in circuses was not only unethical and contrary to the individuals’ most basic health and welfare needs, but that it was simply an accident waiting to happen. In the last year alone, the series of events involving the elephants in Courtney Brothers’ Circus have demonstrated that it is no longer a case of waiting for that accident to happen, but it is clearly time to ensure that both elephants and people are protected once and for all.

Freedom for Animals campaigns for the end to the use of all animals in circuses but maintains that, just as the last elephant in a circus in the UK, Anne, was retired in 2011 to the delight of members of the public around the world, Courtney’s must follow suit and commit to ending their use of elephants in future circus seasons in Ireland.

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Photo sources: Baby escape – Reuters, Elephant Parade – Leinster Leader

[1] During 2011, Gärtner’s elephants had been performing with Cirque Pinder in Paris and a circus history website gave the names of the elephants at this show as Baby, Pira, Dana, Belinda and Thai. Freedom for Animals believes that the elephant in Ireland referred to as ‘Sabine’ may in fact be ‘Thai’ as no elephant by the name Sabine appears on the database of the Elephant Encyclopaedia website (www.elephant.se), the most comprehensive database of elephants in captivity.

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