A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Looking Up for Elephants and Orcas

Could we be close to a tipping point?

Elephants from the Ringling circus parade through Philadelphia

It was the biggest financial penalty ever for mistreatment of animals in captivity. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus agreed to pay $270,000 as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.

Feld Entertainment, which owns the Ringling circus, paid up because they didn’t want the ongoing bad publicity of being seen having to defend themselves in court against allegations of cruelty and neglect to the animals they keep in captivity. Inspection reports dating back four years are devastating:

Banko, a 39-year-old elephant, forced to perform while suffering acute abdominal discomfort from sand colic; big cats held in rotten cages with splintered floors; tigers fed from wheelbarrows used to carry out their waste; zebras breaking out and being chased by police officers.

The circus owners didn’t admit any wrongdoing. They said the payment was just the cost of doing business. And there’s no expectation that the animals will be treated much better as a result. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that the captivity industry is feeling the heat these days.

Last month, SeaWorld was back in court, trying to explain how and why Tilikum, an increasingly depressed, angry, frustrated killer whale, had been able to kill yet another human – his third. SeaWorld has been cited by the government for “willful neglect” of its responsibility toward the company’s employees. And the first week of the hearing was covered by TV news channels every day.

Across the Atlantic, in the Netherlands, another much-publicized case ended with Morgan, a young killer whale who’d been rescued as an orphan, being sent to a Spanish amusement park. Orca experts had received a green light for her to go to a coastal sanctuary in Norway, but the judge demurred. The stadium she was flown to, Loro Parque, on the island resort of Tenerife, has close ties to SeaWorld, and money was almost certainly in the mix of how this case was resolved. But while the conclusion was not good news for Morgan the orca, it did bring yet another round of negative publicity to the captivity industry.

Back in the United States, the animal rights group PETA filed a suit challenging SeaWorld for holding orcas as slaves, which is prohibited by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The suit will almost certainly fail, since all nonhumans are still treated by the law as things, rather than persons. But this may begin to change when attorney Steven Wise’s Nonhuman Rights Project presents the first-ever substantive suit to have a nonhuman animal declared by a judge to be a “legal person.”

Wise’s suit follows in a long tradition of legal debates over personhood. In 1772, for the first time, a human slave was declared in a British court to be a person, not a piece of property, and he was set free. It would take almost a century for the entire institution of slavery to be brought to an end in the Western world, but it began with that one single case. In the same way, Steven Wise’s suit promises to put the first crack in the legal wall that separates humans from nonhumans.

Steven Wise’s suit promises to put the first crack in the legal wall that separates humans from nonhumans.

Meanwhile, another suit is being filed on behalf of Lolita, an orca at the Miami Seaquarium who was stolen from her family off the coast of Oregon in 1970. Every day, Lolita still calls out to her family across the country from the tank where she performs. In her case, a complete set of plans have long been in place for her to be moved to a coastal sanctuary where she’d be close to her family and would be able to join them if she feels ready to.

A particular wrinkle in Lolita’s lawsuit is that the orcas of the Pacific Northwest are listed as an endangered species, which makes it illegal, under federal law, to “harass, harm, pursue, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” members of their species. The lawsuit argues that her treatment amounts to unlawful harassment. And various celebrities, including Harrison Ford and Johnny Depp, have joined the campaign to set her free.

Back on land, three elephants at the Toronto Zoo have been given the green light to go to a sanctuary in California, where they’ll have an altogether better life. And there’s a continuing campaign to have Billy the elephant moved from the Los Angeles Zoo to an elephant sanctuary.

Earlier this year, in the U.K., Annie the elephant was freed from the Bobby Roberts Super Circus and sent to a sanctuary. The owners of the circus have now been charged with animal cruelty and abuse.

That doesn’t mean it’s time to break out the champagne. There’s a lot of long, hard work to be done on behalf of these animals and others. But never before have there been so many lawsuits and government actions being leveled against the captivity industry. And never before have these land and sea circuses been under so much scrutiny.

The tide is beginning to turn. Public sentiment is changing. The more we learn about how these intelligent, social and deeply emotional beings are tortured and otherwise conditioned into submission – the more we understand that we have no business locking them up for our own entertainment, and that to hold them captive is a violation of their most basic rights.