The Dark True History Of Circus Elephants Makes Dumbo Even Harder To Watch

Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
Elephants can’t fly. Just thought I’d get that out of the way, since I know you were wondering. Unfortunately, it’s in the much sadder, less fantastical elements of Disney's remake of Dumbo where you’ll find real-life inspiration.
Actually, the way elephants were treated at the circus in the time of the real Jumbo the elephant, on whom Disney's adorable pachyderm is based, was far too cruel and graphic to depict in a children's movie. What's worse, many of those practices allegedly continue in modern-day elephant training. That's why animal rights activists were happy that Dumbo director Tim Burton chose to use all-CGI elephants and animals for his adaptation. Pressure to end those practices are also part of the reason big circuses like Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey finally phased out their elephant programs. Whether you have to get your hanky ready to watch Dumbo on the big screen (seriously, that song alone has me sobbing), or you've already cried your eyes out over the adorable elephant's journey, you may want to know that in real life, things seem to be much darker.
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The Real Jumbo

In case you don't remember from the first 20 minutes of the film, Dumbo's real name is Jumbo, just like the African elephant who came to the London zoo in 1865. According to the BBC program Attenborough and the Giant Elephant, baby Jumbo likely witnessed his mother being killed for her tusks and hide before they shipped him to England. At the zoo he was a famous attraction, and gave rides to children (even Queen Victoria's offspring) all day long. At night, however, he began having outbursts so violent, he broke off his tusks and continually ground them down. Though, at the time, it was thought that this was due to a hormonal state called musth, elephant experts on the Attenborough show theorized that he could have been suffering from extreme pain in his teeth from malnutrition. Studying his bones (which are in storage at the American Museum of Natural History in New York), experts found evidence of extreme stress on his knees, which may have been caused by all those rides he was giving. His confinement and isolation from other elephants also may have caused his awful moods. His lifelong handler, Matthew Scott, wrote that he would calm down Jumbo with alcohol (which is possibly the inspiration for the original drunk elephant scene in the Dumbo cartoon — Burton opted to skip it in 2019).
In 1882, the zoo sold Jumbo to P.T. Barnum, and he and Scott traveled to New York to join the circus. He made his way around the continent as the star of the show until a tragic event in 1885, when workers were attempting to load him into a train car and a freight train slammed into him.
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The Real Story Of Elephant Mothers & Babies

Not crying yet? You will be.
Elephants are very social animals with strong family bonds. In the wild, babies nurse from their mothers for two to four years and live with them until they're teenagers. But elephant trainers usually take babies from their mothers when they're just over a year old. If you want to get really sad, read the Mother Jones article from 2011 that includes the story of baby Riccardo, who was taken from his mother at birth and died during a training exercise at eight months old.

But The Mistreatment Of Circus Elephants Got Much Worse

The bullhook, or ankus, is a nasty looking poker and hook that trainers have used to direct elephants for centuries. PETA has plenty of horrifying videos showing trainers hitting elephants with them. In veterinary records collected for a lawsuit filed by animal rights group PAWS against Ringling Bros. parent company Feld Entertainment, Mother Jones found documentation of bleeding lacerations and scar tissue on the elephants from bullhooks. There are also accounts of the use of whips and electric shocks. All these allegations arose despite claims that Ringling Bros. only trained using positive reinforcement.
Elephants in circuses endure extreme discomfort when traveling in the circus, standing in small train cars, surrounded by their own waste for hours on end. They can also be exposed to deadly infectious diseases, including tuberculosis (which they can pass to humans).

The Consequences Of Alleged Elephant Mistreatment

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Yes, most of what animal rights groups say has to be taken with a grain of salt, but you can cross reference this PAWS list going back to 1950 and see that these violent incidents are real. The number of times animals lost it while children were riding them is astonishing.

Circus Elephants Today

Burton's film (spoiler) ends with a Disney-approved bow, but the realities of elephants' treatment are a bit less fixable than Dumbo's situation. The good news for real pachyderms is that after many failed attempts to get the courts to prosecute Feld, Ringling Bros. announced its own plan to retire its elephants in 2016 (just before the whole show closed a year later). Many major cities have also passed bans on wild animal performances, effectively making other circuses reconsider acts. Several Shrine circuses are doing away with their elephants, and as of this year, the UniverSoul Circus appears to be using only horses, rescue dogs, and zebras.
There are still some holdouts, such as the Garden Brothers Circus and the Carson Barnes Circus.
"Trainers teach routines to animals utilizing methods that are based on reward and repetition to showcase the animals’ physical abilities, beauty and their distinctive behavior," reads a statement on the Carson Barnes site.
As Cirque du Soleil has shown, there are ways to attract a big crowd without giant wild beasts. Dumbo’s stars can get behind that idea, too.
"I'm super proud to be in a Disney movie that promotes animal-free circuses," star Eva Green told Cinemablend. "Animals are not meant to live in captivity."
And after audiences see Dumbo, they'll probably be pretty hard pressed to agree with her.
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