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Rescuing Elephants, at Last

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
If you're one of those people who go to the circus to see the animal acts, there is bad news: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey staged its final show using elephants on Sunday in Providence, Rhode Island. These animals have done their last tricks for human entertainment. All the elephants that have been part of the circus will be relocated to a 200-acre refuge in Florida.

For elephants, though, this is good news. Training and controlling the giant beasts required methods that were harsh at best and shocking at worst. Ringling Bros.' decision, announced last year, came only after some cities banned the use of bull hooks, which are used to gain compliance by inflicting pain.

Without this punitive tool, getting elephants to perform as desired is impossible. So Feld Entertainment, which had long defended its use of the animals, finally surrendered.

The remaining ones will go to its Center for Elephant Conservation, where, it says, they "will spend their days socializing, roaming the pastures of the vast facility, all while receiving the highest level of care from (an) animal care team." It's the least they should get, but many elephants get far worse, being confined to cages or tethered to chains.

Such treatment once passed unnoticed. But Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, notes in his new book, "The Humane Economy," that the changing expectations of ordinary consumers have catalyzed changes in one industry after another.

"Every day there is less room in our civic conversations for discredited ideas about animals existing for whatever use we humans concoct, and less tolerance for self-serving rationalizations for calculated cruelty," he writes. Concerns once seen as the silly obsession of a lunatic fringe have gone mainstream.

On the same weekend as that Ringling Bros. performance, on the other side of the planet, there was another effort to rescue elephants -- not from mere abuse but from death at the hands of poachers. The Kenyan government burned more than 100 tons of elephant tusks to show its determination to stamp out the illegal global trade in ivory.

Although destroying the tusks could have the perverse effect of making such commerce even more lucrative, the hope is that it will greatly depress the trade by affixing it with a powerful, indelible stigma. That change would help stop the endless slaughter of elephants, whose numbers in Africa have fallen sharply.

Will it work? Maybe, and maybe not. But no one really questions the need to take action against the widespread poaching of African elephants, which could lead to their extinction in the wild.

Humans are increasingly aware that this killing is more than a threat to the survival of an iconic species. It's also a crime against an intelligent, communicative creature whose inner life is more complex than we once imagined.

One elephant researcher describes them as "intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate." They mourn and bury their dead. They have been seen pulling spears out of their fellow elephants.

They communicate over long distances in a variety of ways and maintain large networks of relationships. They have been reported to weep in frustration or sorrow. Caitrin Nicol Keiper, writing in 2013 in The New Atlantis magazine, went so far as to conclude that "they are deeply capable of love."

It's a mark of progress that people have come to perceive the attributes they have that warrant our respect and consideration. Whatever use we choose to make of elephants, it can no longer justify needless cruelty.

Cruelty, however, is in the eye of the beholder. In March, three American zoos transported 18 African elephants from a reserve in Swaziland so they can spend their lives in captivity. This contrasts with the decision of many zoos in the U.S. and abroad to stop keeping elephants.

When the Detroit Zoo retired its exhibit in 2004, director Ron Kagan said, "People's traditional expectation of zoos is that they see lions and tigers and elephants. But it's also their expectation that an animal has a good life." That's not really possible for elephants confined to zoos, as anyone paying attention can see.

Keiper's New Atlantis article carried the haunting title "Do Elephants Have Souls?" If they do, they might wonder the same thing about us. Our callous treatment of them over decades is grounds for doubt. But we're getting better.

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