08/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On the Matter of Elephant Rights

Should you ever hit an elephant? If so, how hard, and with what?

The reason I ask these questions is because I recently viewed a video of circus handlers beating their elephants before performances of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus. The pictures clearly show the handlers using a device called a bull hook to strike the elephants on the ears, trunk and head, sometimes quite forcefully.

An investigator of the animal rights group PETA recorded the video. He traveled undercover as a stagehand with the Ringling Bros. Red Unit for several months to show locations in a number of different states, including Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Any kid who has ever been to the circus can relate in detail the amazing tricks performed by wild animals. For some reason, humans are entertained for hours on end by animals that are able to do back flips or dance on cue. But would you feel differently if you knew the animals were being hit with a bull hook or struck with a whip?

The bull hook is a rod about three feet long with a hook near one end. While it is not illegal to use one, there are guidelines you can read for yourself on the website of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The guide states, "because of their large size, intelligence, and social needs, elephants can be challenging to keep in a way that is safe for humans and satisfactory for animal welfare." However, the guide cautions the bull hook should be used with "a light touch" for negative reinforcement, not in a heavy-handed way.

"Elephant skin is as sensitive as human skin and they can feel when a fly lands on them," says PETA Vice-President Daphna Nachminovitch. Even though the typical pachyderm may weigh in at 10-thousand pounds, the skin can be quite thin in some areas she pointed out.

"This video is more evidence that these animals should not be used in these performances because there is huge potential for abuse that apparently seems to be happening," says Stacy Wolf, legal counsel for the Humane Law Enforcement Division of the ASPCA (American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). The organization has a long-standing opposition to the use of wild animals as circus performers.

On the other hand, it's clear that Ringling Bros. is not going to release all the elephants and tigers, fold its tents and close the circus. It maintains the animals are cared after in a comfortable and safe environment. A spokesman for Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. refers to PETA as an "extremist animal rights group" and questions the context of the video regarding the portrayal of the animal handlers.

This is not the first time the circus has run afoul of animal rights groups for alleged mistreatment of animals. A case brought by some groups and a former employee claimed violations of the Endangered Species Act and is still in court. PETA has filed a complaint with the U.S, Department of Agriculture asserting abuses under the Animal Welfare Act.

All of the discussion and differing points of view really fall into three rather black and white arguments. Wild animals should never be held captive because that is against their nature and intrinsically cruel. Wild animals can be ethically held in captivity as long as they are treated kindly. Wild animals are merely beasts and subject to the decisions of humans. The debate is not a new one. Unfortunately, the animals, be they elephant, tiger or other, never get to have a say.

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