Elephants In Captivity


Every elephant deserves to roam free

Humans have been capturing and exploiting elephants for over 4,000 years. Today, there are an estimated 15,000–20,000 elephants in captivity around the world. More docile and trainable than their African cousins, the majority of captive elephants not found in zoos are Asian elephants.

Almost one-third of the world’s Asian elephants live in captivity. Historically, they were used in logging and agriculture, but are now increasingly being exploited for tourism. Asian elephants are forced to entertain humans in circuses, carnivals, traveling shows, tourist attractions, trekking camps, etc. These elephants are stolen from their families and broken into submission—all in the name of entertainment.

Elephants are broken into submission for captivity through a brutal process, called the Phajaan. Elephants that survive this unspeakable physical and emotional pain are often called domesticated, but that is a false and misleading term. They are forcibly and violently tamed by humans, who reinforce their dominance through the use of bull hooks (also known as “elephant goads”) and other measures. Their captivity often comes in a variety of painful forms including:

  • Use in entertainment industries (circuses, traveling shows, carnivals, fairs, films, marketing campaigns—and as curiosities to promote businesses)
  • Use in agricultural and logging industries
  • Use as sight-seeing transport in trekking camps and for elephant-back-rides
  • Use as “Temple Guardians,” where they are chained near temples to encourage donations from visitors and passersby

The Brutal Phajaan “Training”

Baby elephants as young as three-years old are stolen from their mothers in the wild and dragged to a clearing to endure the Phajaan or “breaking of the spirit.” They will be kept in small crates (called “crush cages”) where their legs are bound and stretched with ropes. They will be stabbed, beaten, burned, starved of food and water, and subjected to constant yelling and screaming. Bull hooks are used to stab their heads, slash their skin, and tug their ears. Asian elephants used for rides or other entertainment often have torn or shredded ears from being ripped during the Phajaan. They also often have scars on their foreheads from deep lacerations caused by beatings.

The Phajaan may last from several days to weeks. The elephants have no rest from mental and physical torture. Gradually, their spirits are broken. In the final stage, the mahout will bring the animal its first food and water. They will be the one to release the elephant and lead it away from the crate. After weeks of torture, emotional abuse, loneliness, confusion, and separation, the elephant sees this human as its savior—the one it trusts. This is just another stage of mental and emotional manipulation. It is how a mahout gains control over such an immense animal.

Elephants in Captivity in the US

There are an estimated 400 elephants in captivity in the United States, primarily in zoos (300+), circuses, and traveling shows. (This figure does not contain the number of elephants in unregulated facilities.) Elephants are enormously intelligent, social animals that form life-long bonds that do not diminish over time or with separation. Thus, elephants in the entertainment industry experience deep and long-lasting physical, emotional, and psychological harm from the loneliness, stress, neglect, and cruelty they undergo in captivity.

Few legal protections exist in the US for animals forced to perform in traveling shows. The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) provides standards for the treatment of warm-blooded animals traveling with circuses, but the standards are minimal and frequently violated. Circus elephants can spend up to 11 months of the year traveling thousands of miles chained inside vehicles that often lack climate control, typically standing in their own waste.

The tricks elephants are forced to perform are unnatural and dangerous. In the coercive training used to control elephants in their “care,” handlers resort to hitting, prodding, and striking them with bull hooks. When not entertaining, elephants are usually chained alone, depriving them of the companionship that they desperately crave. This painful isolation and suffering is well documented and can cause further self harm from their repetitive swaying, rocking, or head bobbing while chained.

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