AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers are considering banning the use of elephants in traveling animal acts.
Animal advocates told a legislative committee Thursday that it’s cruel to isolate and chain the highly intelligent social mammals and use bull hooks to force them to do unnatural tricks such as headstands. Supporters of Democratic Rep. Kimberly Monaghan’s bill said today’s smartphone generation can enjoy elephants in their natural habitat through virtual reality exhibits, life-size animatronics and 3D cinematography.
But an elephant trainer and circus enthusiasts rebutted allegations of animal cruelty and said elephants continue to be a big draw for families seeking old-fashioned entertainment.
“Many children in Maine would never get to see an elephant unless they go to the circus,” said 77-year-old animal trainer Norman Waycott. “Good family entertainment is really hard to come by these days.”
The famed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will close in May, a year after its owner sent its elephants to a Florida center for elephant conservation.
More than a decade ago, a Maine girl’s pleas for better treatment for elephants inspired a national movement. Maine didn’t ban the use of elephants in traveling acts but passed rules governing their treatment and care.
Katie Hansberry, state director for The Humane Society of the United States, said such rules lack teeth and the transient nature of elephant shows leads to poor state and federal enforcement. She pointed to the case of a malnourished elephant that appeared in Bangor in 2008.
Waycott, former owner of the Saco Zoo, said he’s worked around elephants since he was 19, and the bill legislators are considering would harm circus employees, circuses put on by Shriners International and children in poor, rural areas.
He said he’s used only voice commands – not bull hooks – to communicate with elephants, which he noted are typically chained at night and while being transported in trailers.
“When they’re out outside the trailer, they’re behind an electric fence like a cow, or a goat or a horse,” he said, estimating they perform 15 minutes a day at most.
Janet Lynch of Pownal said people know much more about elephants than they did decades ago. The pachyderms display grief, happiness and empathy and have the largest brain of any land animal.
“Nobody is against circuses,” Lynch said. “But I am against circuses that abuse elephants, and I think using elephants in circuses amounts to abuse.”
The committee will continue working on the bill next week.