Why Do Circus Elephants Get All the Sympathy?

Ringling Bros.' decision to retire its elephants has been met with near-universal approval. Why do far fewer people care about the animals being slaughtered on a daily basis?
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A circus elephant in the 1920s. (Photo: Port Adelaide Enfield Local History Photos/Flickr)

A circus elephant in the 1920s. (Photo: Port Adelaide Enfield Local History Photos/Flickr)

Last week, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the nearly century-old American circus institution, announced that it would be “retiring” its iconic elephants by 2018. The elephants will be moved to the circus’ Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, where 29 others currently live. This is a major, image-altering move; the elephants are to the circus behemoth what orca whales are to SeaWorld: part of the brand’s identity. It’s a decision that’s given organizations like PETA and the Humane Society, as well as some notable celebrities and authors, cause for celebration. And it should: Ringling Bros. has a dark history of serious animal mistreatment.

As Mother Jones reported in 2011, Ringling Bros.’ elephants spend the vast majority of their time “either in chains or on trains.” Kenneth Feld, the CEO of Ringling's corporate parent, Feld Entertainment, “admitted under oath that his trainers routinely ‘correct’ elephants by hitting them with bullhooks, whipping them, and on occasion using electric prods,” Deborah Nelson wrote in Mother Jones. One well-known elephant trainer for Ringling Bros., Gunther Gebel-Williams, was even spotted “whipping a baby elephant in the face outside a circus train in Mexico City.”

The seemingly universal celebration following this announcement (well, almost universal) is indicative of a cultural climate that is largely pro-animal rights. And yet, there is an immense portion of United States’ economy that is dependent on the slaughter of livestock. Over nine billion animals are killed for food every year in America. It’s a very strange dynamic: The simultaneous passion that the majority of Americans feel for animals, and the indifference toward livestock.

“I am constantly struck by the contradiction between people who are obsessively caring about elephants or orcas or their pets, but at the same time continue to eat meat or don’t even question the issue about how the choices we make about what we eat are affecting animal welfare.”

“I think that is the single most interesting and important point you can make about animal welfare these days,” says Tim Zimmermann, the producer and co-writer of the documentary Blackfish, which chronicled the sustained mistreatment of SeaWorld’s orca whales. The response to that film was swift and severe, and, again, pointed to a general public consensus that holds animal rights in high regard. (The massive backlash resulted in the SeaWorld CEO’s ousting, a decline in attendance and plunge in stock, and a lawsuit from shareholders.) And yet, nine billion animals killed every year is a statistic that’s hard to come to terms with.

“I am constantly struck by the contradiction between people who are obsessively caring about elephants or orcas or their pets, but at the same time continue to eat meat or don’t even question the issue about how the choices we make about what we eat are affecting animal welfare,” says Zimmermann, who also wrote “The Killer in the Pool,” the Outside magazine article that inspired the Blackfish documentary. “I think there’s no question that the single biggest source of animal misery on the planet is livestock farming.”

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It turns out that psychologists have been researching this bemusing relationship for years. The University of Maine’s Sophie Veilleux comprehensively explored the subject in her 2014 paper, “Coping With Dissonance: Psychological Mechanisms That Enable Ambivalent Attitudes Toward Animals.” Veilleux outlines four feasible possibilities for why the vast majority of Americans, who clearly care about the treatment of animals—as evidenced by Blackfish, Ringling Bros., and a culture that regards pets as family members—show an utter ambivalence toward livestock.

The first, and perhaps most comprehensive, theory about how and why we justify animal death on this scale is cognitive dissonance, or the subconscious rejection of opposing thoughts, values, or beliefs. This theory, first developed by Leon Festinger in the late 1950s, explains that when two conflicting ideas enter one’s mind—meat tastes good and is a normal part of our culture, but the mistreatment of animals is not OK—the brain subconsciously produces a behavioral or attitudinal adjustment to justify one’s actions. Smoking is the go-to example, but, as research has shown, this has an obvious application in the mass slaughtering and consumption of livestock.

In 2010, a team of researchers conducted a study in which they asked a group of meat-eating students what animals on a list of 27 they feel obligated to show concern for. While filling out their forms, half of the participants were offered a snack of cashews, while the other half enjoyed beef jerky. The researchers hypothesized that those who ate the beef jerky would unconsciously justify their present action of consuming meat and exhibit more cognitive dissonance than those who were snacking on cashews. And that’s exactly what happened. Those who ate the cashews deemed, on average, 17.3 of the 27 listed animals as worthy of “moral concern,” while those who ate the jerky averaged 13.5.

Elephants from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus begin the walk from the circus train to the arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo: Fort Carson/Flickr)

Elephants from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus begin the walk from the circus train to the arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo: Fort Carson/Flickr)

“Because culinary traditions are so deeply ingrained and valued, for many the path of least resistance may not be a behavioral adjustment,” Veilleux writes, offering her own insights on that 2010 study. “Considering only 3.2% of Americans are vegetarians (and that term is often used quite loosely), and supposing that most Americans don’t live in a constant state of uncomfortable mental disharmony, it is arguable that the majority are engaging in some form of cognitive adjustment to feel more comfortable about their consumer practices.”

One possible cause of cognitive dissonance is psychic numbing, a phenomenon that sheds light on the inability for large statistics to adequately convey the tangible issue it is representing. When discussing problems on a massive scale—say, homelessness, domestic abuse, murder rates, etc.—we often rely on statistics (as I’ve done in this article). The idea of psychic numbing works to explain how it is very difficult for quantitative data, even though it’s representing very real issues, to illicit an emotional response. In short: Numbers are boring. One can grasp the statistic in theory, but the underlying problem loses its individuality—in a way, its glimmer. On the other hand, a detailed, singular display of an issue, usually through a visual medium, can more easily elicit a visceral response. This is what happened in the reaction to Blackfish.

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A simpler, and perhaps more realistic, explanation could be how much intelligence, or lack thereof, we really think these animals have. This is called the denial of mind, or the dehumanization of animals. "They are here for our use" is an argument you’d likely hear under this umbrella.

Nick Haslam of the University of Melbourne in Australia is a leading researcher in the psychology of dehumanization. In a study from 2012, he was part of a team who found that people deem animals to be less intelligent when they’re told that they will be consuming lamb or beef in the very near future. It’s a form of rationalization where one convinces him or herself that what they are doing is not cruel—that an animal is too dumb to know the difference. In 2013, while explaining his results to NPR, Haslam said: “[We] found that people were especially likely to deny human-like qualities to animals that they eat, and that they deny animals these qualities especially when they contemplate eating them or are in the process of eating them.”

It is well documented that pigs are remarkably intelligent creatures. (Candace Croney, an associate professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, once taught pigs how to play video games.) Yet, there has never been a cultural humanization of pigs in the way that there has been for dogs (also intelligent creatures). One can venture a guess as to why that is.

It is well documented that pigs are remarkably intelligent creatures. Yet, there has never been a cultural humanization of pigs in the way that there has been for dogs.

Denying an entire group of people’s intelligence, intentionally relegating them to a lower status, is called racism. That type of thinking as it applies to different animals is called speciesism. It’s a discrimination, or prejudice, toward non-humans. Acclaimed author Peter Singer wrote in Animal Liberation:

Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favoring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.

It may not take the aggressive form that racism or sexism can (and does) among humans, but it’s a simple, fundamental bias toward members of your own species.

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There are many tricks we play to justify eating meat, and to justify the death of at least nine billion animals every year. But the response to both Ringling Bros. and Blackfish clearly points to a public that does indeed care about the well-being of other species.

After the wild success of Blackfish, Zimmermann, who has since become vegan, spends a lot of time thinking about this upsetting dichotomy. His theory, at least is part, has to do with the undeniable attraction of charismatic megafauna, a loose term used to describe large, popular animals with nearly universal appeal. Certainly, elephants and orcas fall into this category. They’re powerful, smart, social, rare, and display what we could deem human emotion. There are many reasons people fixate of these types of animals and try so hard to ensure their well-being.

Zimmermann fully acknowledges that last week’s announcement is a major victory for both animal rights and grassroots campaigns everywhere, but says megafauna are ultimately an easy target. “People won’t like me saying this, but it’s easy to advocate for an orca and be against SeaWorld, or for an elephant and be against the circus, because it’s not that big of a change in your life,” he says. “But giving up meat or thinking about giving up meat is a huge change. It cuts right to the core of how we live.”

The benefits of excluding meat from one’s diet are abundant. (Health and moral issues aside, livestock is responsible for 10 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions.) But how this can be effectively conveyed, how we can combat all these various mental trappings, is the million-dollar question. Zimmermann, for one, sees a potential solution in the same vein as Blackfish.

“The most powerful documentary footage I’ve seen is footage of animals or farm animals being released into sanctuaries,” he says. “It’s beautiful watching an animal that is coming from appalling conditions and expressing, although people always say don’t anthropomorphize, what clearly seems to be joy: running, jumping, exploring, nuzzling a calf. I find that just as moving.”

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