6 March

Carriage Horses And Elephants: Pyrrhic Victories. Weep For The Animals

by Jon Katz
Asian Elephants
Asian Elephants

 “A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.” – Wikipedia.


When I was nine years old, the Ringling Bros. circus train came to Providence, they parked by the railway station, and the circus and its animals paraded through the city, a beautiful and amazing sight. The big and calm and handsome elephants led the parade, swinging their great trunks back and forth, swishing their tails. There was a dignity and magic about them that mesmerized me and I will never forget it. Watching the parade, I became an animal lover, I saw the beautiful Asian elephants walking proudly through town on the way to the circus tents being set up in a large field.

It was the first time I saw an elephant like that, I became a circus lover that day and counted the days on the calendar until the circus returned. I remember little else about the circus, the elephants fired my imagination in a special way. Those days are numbered. Ringling Brothers announced yesterday that are, after decades of legal wrangling and assaults from animal rights organizations, they are ending a tradition that is hundreds of years old, succumbing to pressure and phasing out their elephants over the next three years. It may be that I will never see an elephant again, and it is certain that millions of kids will never get the chance.

The drama of the elephants echoes that of the carriage horses. Both show us  the ignorance more and more people have about the real lives of animals as more and more disappear from our world. The circus and the carriage trade have faced long expensive and cruel campaigns from people who claim to be speaking for the rights of animals, but who have just killed more elephants than have ever died at the hands of circuses. They will do the same to the carriage horses, given a chance.

There are many people cheering the decision of Ringling Bros. to phase out it’s domesticated Asian elephants, (generally, the African elephants have not been domesticated) claiming the decision is long overdue. It is the ultimate Pyrrhic Victory. The elephants are saved. The elephants have been condemned to die.

I am not one of them, I cry for the animals and for the elephants, the decision means the circus elephants are doomed and will soon disappear from our world. Another animal species we  emotionalized, another group of humans abused and mistreated, more animals we could not thoughtfully and loving protect from extinction at the hands of people who claim to be saving them.

Like so many other animals that have lived and worked with people – carriage horses, ponies in farmers markets, horses in Hollywood – the elephants will vanish from our world and will not return.  Like horses, elephants have worked well with people all over the world. They are intelligent, social, trainable, valuable. People love them, and the magic they emote.

What exactly, is the agenda of the people who say they are for animal rights? What kind of liberation movement offers animals one right:  to disappear and die.

If you think it is hard for 300 big draft horses to find good homes, consider the future of the circus elephants. Outside of a handful of preserves, there is no place for Asian elephants in our greedy and over-developed world, poachers and developers, the true abusers of elephants,  are slaughtering them en masse. Most, if not all of these elephants will die as a result of this campaign. Who will have the money or will to protect them and keep them alive? They aren’t safe anywhere in Asia, their home habitat? What kind of future will the animal rights organizations provide for them?

Ringling Bros. said it is becoming too difficult to deal with all of the local communities whose politicians have been pressured by animal rights activists and showered with money to restrict the use of animals in circuses, a new speciatty for local governments who can’t fund their own schools, or balance their budgets. Circuses – and elephants – have been cherished for thousands of years, what of the people who love them and have always loved them?

There is one  fact, one number that speaks to me more than any other in the stories about Ringling Bros. decision, this from the Associated Press:

“In 2014, Feld Entertainment (the owner of Ringling Bros.) won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the S.P.C.A. and the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.”

Here, the plight of the elephants echoes the peril of the New York Carriage Horses. Organizations that claim to be deciding the future of animals lie about them, are ignorant of their needs and nature, invent evidence, bribe people to swear falsely, then drive them out of our world and celebrate their end.

Brian Williams is driven from  his work because he embellished a war story; Hilary Clinton struggles through a firestorm because she used her private e-mail account; Bill O’Reilly battles the new Inquisitors online because he puffed up a story about the Falklands War.

Yet the groups that targeted the elephants and the ones that target the carriage horses and lie and lie and lie – at least $25 million worth, and that is just one case – have the nerve to gloat and celebrate. They get caught at it every day and get away with it every day.  They feed off a lazy and manipulable media and a feckless public who know little of animals life any more, but are suckers for those wrenching photos on the Internet. They sometimes think with their hearts and reach for their credit cards every time. Animal rights is a profitable and booming business, you just have to look away from the increasingly obvious fact that they don’t really save many animals, they use the money to attack a lot of people.

Animal rights lobbyists swarm statehouses and local municipalities pushing for laws restricting the movement of animals the activities of circuses. This is the real reason Ringling Bros. is getting rid of it’s elephants, not because it is mistreating or abusing them. They and their lawyers cannot fight so many different battles, and this is where the animals suffer, when it is no longer worth anyone’s time and trouble to keep them. PETA is good at getting rid of animals, awful at caring for them.

That could be the awful plight of the carriage horses as well, in New York City, the lobbyists have found themselves a mayor.

So here’s our new idea of morality. If you embellish a story and are caught, you are finished for life, discredited and shamed, but you can conjure up $25 million in false testimony for years and drive a whole species of animals without any kind of punishment or loss of face, without so much as an explanation, an apology. Nor is there a drop in the millions of dollars of  revenue good-hearted and well -meaning people donate thinking they are saving animals who are in trouble.

This is not just the story of the elephants, it is the story of the carriage horses, and the ponies, and the horses in Hollywood, and soon enough, of your horses and ponies and your dogs and cats.

And answer this, celebrating people, those of you who are trumpeting their virtue: where will the elephants go when the leave the circus? Who will feed them and care for them? Take care of their health problems? Give them meaningful and safe work? And what will the people who say they are for the rights of animals do when all of the animals are gone, all of the working dogs, the carriage horses, the ponies and elephants and chickens on the farms and sled dogs? How will they spend all of their money?  On animals or politicians?

Before you contribute, you might wish to ask the animal rights groups in New York who are fighting the carriage horses to tell you how many animals they have saved and how many politicians they have paid.

In dozens of court and other legal contests, no judge ever found that Ringling Bros. was abusing or mistreating it’s elephants, just as there is no evidence that the New York carriage horses are being abused. Not once, in case after case, testimony after testimony, did any medical or judicial authority find that Ringling Bros. was guilty of abuse or that the elephants were the victims of mistreatment. In fact, at the end of Ringling Bros. great confrontation with the newly-radicalized A.S.P.C.A. and H.S.U.S. a few years ago, a judge found that these groups were paying witnesses to lie and ordered them to pay the court costs for 14 years of litigation.

Do not expect an apology or even a mention in most media. Extremism in the pursuit of animal rights is no vice. This is a crusade where lies breed more lies, and why not? Lies seem to work.

It was not the law that did in the elephants in the circus, it was the people who broke the law and who pretend it doesn’t exist.

Domesticated elephants have been working with people all over the world for thousands of years, and like the carriage horses, the work they have been doing in circuses is far lighter, easier and better regulated than any of their poor brethren in the wild, slaughtered and dislocated en mass by a greedy world. Some have surely been mistreated, many have not.  The elephants, like the horses, get medical care and food and shelter, protection from predators (and poachers.)

What a shame that nobody fought to make the elephant’s lives even safer and better so that the next generations of children can see them and awaken to the beauty of the natural world and the importance of elephants in our lives.

The echoes of the carriage horses are everywhere in the story of the elephants. Ringling Bros. are not the people who abuse elephants, their elephants are not the ones in need of rescue, just go on YouTube and look up “poachers.” More echoes: the animals in need of rescue are ignored and abandoned, the ones well cared for and valued are hidden away on all those magical “preserves” or slaughtered. And try this out for yourself: think of how you felt when you saw an elephant in the circus, compare it to what you feel watching this video.

Like the carriage horses, work with people is – or was – by far the best chance of survival for these wondrous animals.

This kind of regulated work is the only way these animals can survive our developing and chaotic world. Like the carriage horses, the elephants are among the safest and best cared for  – and watched – animals on the earth. Like the carriage horses, there is no effort to  improve the lives of the elephants or make them safer, only this thoughtless and righteous mindlessness that offers only one idea, again and again and again: attack the people who live and work with animals, drive the animals away with no thought given to where they will go, or if they will ever return.

And to those of you good people who are celebrating, and who believed those $25 million worth of lies over these many years, I hope that you do not have animals in your care, or wish them to be in your lives or those of your children. Because victories like this are profoundly Pyrrhic, they define the very idea of a victory that is cast as a victory for animals but is in reality,  truly an awful defeat for them. This is yet another  mistake that can never be undone, a mindlessness that can never be corrected. If we do not awaken, if we are not mindful, this is a mistake that will be repeated again and again until there are no more animals to take away from us.

Animal are our partners, our brothers and sisters in the world, we owe them much more than this.

I am sorry for the Asian elephants in the circus, they will soon be lost to us. I am sorry for the children who will  never see them. I am sorry for the suffering animals who are not being saved and will not be saved. I am sorry for the animal lovers of the world who find it so difficult and painful to keep animals in their lives and work with them.

Perhaps most of all, I am sorry for the good people who think they are stopping abuse and cruelty, and of what they will feel when they one day wake up and see what they have done, when they see what is gone and can never be brought back. Forgive them, for they know not what they have done.

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