HARTFORD (AP) — They may appear to be passive pachyderms, but performing elephants can be deadly, say some lawmakers who want to ban them from traveling shows and circuses in Connecticut.
Elephants are trained through pain, force and fear, they say. Such experiences, combined with the effects of captivity, drive some to go on rampages and trample human beings, sometimes to death, activists say.
"When they're not in their little pens, they're chained up," said Tom Rider, a former circus worker who testified Friday before the legislature's Environment Committee. "These elephants are chained and beaten every day."
Circus operators discounted the claims, arguing that they provide healthy environments and meet or exceed federal animal welfare standards.
"Our elephants live longer and healthier lives because of the care they receive," said Tom Albert, vice president of governmental relations for Feld Entertainment, which produces Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The legislation before lawmakers, proposed by state Reps. Steven Fontana, D-North Haven, and Diana Urban, R-North Stonington, would prohibit the use of elephants in traveling shows, theatrical exhibitions and circuses that come to the state.
A similar bill has been proposed in Massachusetts.
Fontana said he is offering the legislation as protection for the animals and also for those who train or watch the animals perform. Between 1990 and 2003, according to the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, captive elephants have killed 65 people and injured 130 others.
Last month, in Fort Wayne, Ind., a circus animal trainer loading elephants into a trailer was trampled to death after he fell. At least two of the three Asian elephants — each weighing more than 7,000 pounds — stomped on him, the coroner said.
In 1995, a New London woman was killed after a circus elephant grabbed her with its trunk and threw her to the ground in the parking lot of the New London Mall.
Ringling Bros. says there is no evidence that captive elephants are more prone to aggressive or erratic behavior than those in the wild. The circus company says trained elephants behave more predictably.
Albert said no patrons have been harmed by elephants at any of the 700 shows the three traveling Ringling Bros. circuses put on each year. A handler at Ringling Bros.' animal retirement facility in Florida was killed about 10 years ago.
"That's an awful lot of shows without having any kind of problem," Albert said.
But several animal rights activists in Connecticut told lawmakers they don't trust Ringling Bros. Some brought copies of videotapes they claim show evidence of elephant abuse.
Nancy Mathews of Fairfield said she protests the circus every time it comes to the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. Mathews shows patrons a sharp-ended bullhook that she and other advocates accuse circus officials of using on the massive animals.
"I would like to go home today and tell my son...that finally someone who has the power to make a difference in the lives of these animals is going to do so," she told lawmakers.