Elephant Shows: Entertainment or Abuse?

After riding an elephant up to Amber Fort in India, I regretted being the reason why the elephant was whacked on the head and kicked the entire way. I didn’t enjoy the ride from the minute I knew that the elephant was abused, and I won’t ride one as a tourist attraction again.

I tend to not partake in attractions and shows at an animal’s expense; however, on a recent field trip with my students, I found myself sitting through several disconcerting animal shows at Safari World in Bangkok.

I did not enjoy seeing orangutans dressed up in skimpy human clothing and mimicking human activities like boxing. No sir. Nor did I enjoy watching elephants labor through crowd-pleasers like painting, playing soccer, and standing up. I find this humanization to be strange and unsettling.

Whats more unsettling during elephant shows is the continual use of the bullhook, which is a sharp metal hook that is used to jab the elephant in sensitive areas to get it to perform some sort of task; it serves as a prompt for the sake of entertaining humans.

Most people don’t even realize this subtle whack to the elephants is continually taking place; they are too taken with the excitement of the show to realize that it’s what keeps the show going.

However, because I have been made aware of elephant abuse from several other blogs like this one and this one,  I was on the edge of my seat- and not because the show was enthralling. I was hopelessly fixated on the bullhooks that always hover close to the elephants.

I stared at the men holding the bullhooks who show no mercy, willing them not to strike the elephants too hard, and flinching on behalf of the elephants when it happened (often times in sensitive spots like on their head, behind their ears, or under their trunks). This is their way of continually showing dominance and control over these large, majestic creatures.

Yes, these shows can be entertaining, especially for children who are giddy to see these wild animals up close. Elephant shows, and animal shows in general, are a huge worldwide industry which draw families and couples from all races. However, major entertainers, such as Ringling Bros are notorious for brutal, violent training sessions that baby elephants must go through.

If more people were aware of what it takes to put on an elephant show, they certainly would not enjoy it. Like me, they may be too focused on the violent, archaic methods used to get the elephant to perform. Seeing a marvelous creature like a elephant coerced into twirling a hoola-hoop on its truck, walk across a tight rope, and kick a soccer ball into a goal is just so pathetic and unnatural.

As a general rule of thumb, if an animal attraction involves a bull hook or other prop used to inflict pain, then it’s not worth it to me.

There are several elephant rehabilitation centers in Thailand, which are dedicated to providing refuge and care for elephants who have been used for such shows, street begging, etc. I would love to volunteer at one of these centers; it’s a great option for people who want to interact with elephants without exploiting and harming them. I don’t believe that you can see a show more beautiful and exciting than an animal thriving in its natural habitat.

When is the last time you saw animals performing? Did you enjoy it?


  1. kateinbkk | 23rd Aug 13

    I can’t stand animal shows or even zoos (I don’t care how ‘nice’ they are)! It’s really hard to know if places here in Thailand, like ones that allow you to ride and bathe elephants, who claim to be humane, are actually humane. And what is humane captivity anyway? The most humane thing for human beings to do to non-human animals is to let them be, to protect them, and to use our intellect to maintain balance on the planet for all living things. I think volunteering at a sanctuary would be a great idea, Casey. It would be nice to give back to a species who has gone through so much as Thailand’s prized animal. In general, I’ve noticed that while people in Thailand like animals (who doesn’t?), they are not particularly respectful of them. Just like you cringed at Safari World, I’ve cringed on field trips during which students were allowed to handle turtles, snakes, and other animals without any rules about noise level, method of handling/touching, etc. Humans have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves respectful members of the animal kingdom.

    • Words of a Wanderer | 23rd Aug 13

      Kate, I completely agree! It would be best for the animals if we had no interference at all, but if we have to, it should be in a respectful way, like you said. I do think animals can be very educational for students, but I too feel for the animals who have to be poked and prodded everyday and forced into captivity. What a sad existence! We do have a long way to go.

  2. Chiang Mai with Dad | kateinbkk | 29th Oct 13

    […] and fellow blogger, Casey, wrote an insightful post about elephants being used for entertainment. Read it here. I found only THREE reputable elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Check out this website, especially if […]

Join the Discussion!