Point of View: Abuse of Elephants

Letter to the Editor

The Mercury News and Linda Goldston are to be commended for their series on animals in circuses and zoos. In these in-depth articles, they have educated readers on one of the darker sides of our society.

I became concerned about the abuse of elephants and other animals in circuses and zoos a number of years ago when, because of a flight delay in San Diego, I read the local paper to pass the time. A very small article covered a report that had been issued on the beating of an elephant named Dunda at the San Diego Wildlife Park. Employees of the Park, a part of the internationally known San Diego Zoo, had roped and pulled an elephant to the ground and then brutally beaten the elephant with an ax handle. The report, which concluded that no rules were broken and no action was recommended, was accepted and filed by the zoo's board of directors and administration.

Upon returning, I requested a copy of the report along with a copy of the original complaint; but I heard nothing for two weeks. My senate office staff made a second request; and shortly thereafter, I received a visit from the senator who represented that portion of San Diego wanting to know why I was "harassing this fine organization." Much to his credit, however, after learning the background, he became supportive of our efforts.

We eventually obtained the report and held what was probably one of the largest-ever legislative hearings. It proved to be a real eye opener for me. I had always thought that zoos and wildlife facilities existed to protect and care for animals. I found out that, instead, they operate based on a profit motive like any other business. My staff and I learned about zoos selling animals to hunting ranches in Texas; how animals are transferred through animal brokers to conceal the trail of ownership; about the frenzy of breeding activity so that zoos can obtain larger crowds by encouraging people to come see the baby animals (which are often sold to the hunting ranches after they grow beyond being cute and are no longer drawing crowds); about the cruel and inhumane methods used on animals in training them to perform tricks or to make them safe to ride; and the number of people in positions of authority who did not care about these findings and, in fact, ridiculed them in an effort to make them seem insignificant and unimportant.

Your report and articles on this industry have gone far to inform people about what really happens behind the seemingly wholesome facade of circuses and zoos. Before changes will occur, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Fish and Game as well as city, county and other state and federal officials must take action. I would go so far as to say that animals should not be permitted in circuses until the time that measures have been taken to provide protection to these animals. I also would point out that most of these measures have been introduced in the California Legislature, but the bills have failed.

A program to create a humane environment for captive animals in zoos and circuses should include, at a minimum, the following elements:

A registry of all elephants with a mandate that any change of location be reported. To be really effective, this needs to be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A registration system of microchips or numbers permanently tattooed on each exotic animal in captivity with a requirement that the sale or disposal of that animal be accounted for in records that are available to the Department of Fish and Game and open for public inspection.

A requirement that every animal have its own health folder, signed by a veterinarian, that contains a record of all illnesses and the medical care provided.

A requirement that all animals utilized in performances or other money-making activities have a portion of the earnings they produce credited to a fund used to support them when they are no longer valuable for those purposes. For example, it is doubtful if anyone knows how many Mercury Cougars are being housed in animal shelters which must constantly try to raise money for their care.

A requirement that exotic animal trainers be licensed and prohibited from training animals to do unnatural tricks and acts. Monkeys often have irritating solutions sprayed in their eyes to make them cover their eyes when they are filmed for a movie as having viewed an accident. Elephants often are punished severely to make them compliant for riding by the public.

Passage of Congressman Farr’s proposal to ban elephants from circuses. If his bill is not approved by the Congress, it should at least become law in California. The treatment of elephants in circuses is probably the most deplorable among the animals that are utilized for the public's entertainment.


These are really modest proposals and, in spite of what is sometimes said, are absolutely needed. Claims are made that circuses and zoos keep animals from becoming extinct, that they allow people to see animals that they otherwise would only be able to read about, and that animals are fun to watch. In reality, zoos don’t keep animals from becoming extinct; viewing the animals tells us very little about them since we are seeing them only in artificial situations; and we should question our fun in light of the agony animals must endure for us to have this so-called enjoyment.

Senator Dan McCorquodale, Retired