Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Death rituals and the circus animal

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In the smouldering heat of a recent July afternoon, I opted to huddle close to the air conditioner and watch elephant funerals on YouTube.

Oh no, don't get the wrong image in your head: These are not videos of zookeepers crying over a supersized casket, or of some mawkish circus ceremony for a departed big-top star. These are videos of the funerals elephants hold for each other or, in the wary language of animal research, of "what appear to be" the species' "death rituals."

The details of the funerals shift slightly by herd and time and place but are always more or less the same. When an elephant dies, or when a herd encounters the corpse of another left behind, they trumpet wails of grief. Then they gather around it in a silent vigil that can last for days or, for their most beloved matriarchs, even a week. Their graceful trunks caress the body, then give it a final peace underneath a shroud of leaves.

The whole ceremony is beautiful and still and sad, the depth of the creatures' grief immense. Like us and very few other creatures, elephants know their own selves in a mirror, and they know themselves in the bones of their dead. They will return to these gravesites for years on end, making pilgrimage to pay tribute to family who fell and never rose again.

Oh, but when an elephant dies in the circus, the circus packs up and moves along. The show, as they say, must go on.


On Wednesday, Winnipeg's city council voted to ban circuses that feature exotic animals.

That ban cuts deep, right to magic childhood memories of magnificent beasts on parade, of the smell of hay and the taste of popcorn on the tongue. I hold those memories, too, and they were cherished ones. But as I learned the truth, they took on darker colours and more hideous hues, the palettes of wasting bodies and festering wounds.

Even a quick read through a public list of citations and government investigations into various circuses is grotesque: elephants made to march and even carry children on injured and deformed legs; elephants racked by arthritis exacerbated by confinement and strange poses; elephants struggling to survive with untreated tuberculosis.

Before anyone gets litigious, let me be clear: I am not saying all circuses abuse their elephants. I am saying the act of keeping elephants in a circus is in itself an abuse. It can be no other way.

See, while elephants hold funerals, there are many things from the human world they do not do, unless they are so made. In their own lives, elephants do not balance on tiny podiums in ways that put immeasurable strain on their legs. They do not stand confined in tiny cages, they do not feel the steel tip of a bullhook prodding the tender spots behind their ears, and they never wear chains.

What exactly are we doing here, again?

No doubt, parents take their children to animal-bearing circuses with the best of aims. They want their kids to see remarkable creatures, and be amazed. They want to see their child's face dancing with delight and to instil the wonder of the world that drives all curious minds. These are caring and honourable intentions, but exotic animal-bearing circuses conceal more sinister lessons. They appear to be our species' rituals of humiliation.

So let us pause and reframe the situation. Acts of control can never foster true admiration. When animals are torn out of the context of their lives, ripped away from their families and made to dance for our delight, we learn nothing. We see only the illusions of ourselves forced on bodies that were not made to fit, as they spin through tricks and behaviours only human egos can understand.

But in that lazy afternoon on YouTube, in those endless videos of elephants mourning their dead, I saw it: a thread of life that splashes across species. A thread that stitches together a picture of life on this blue planet that is not confined to the human mind, but instead teaches that we are not so very alone. It's the greatest show on Earth, and not one of us needs a ticket to go.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 D2

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