Beulah’s death is a wake-up call for Massachusetts lawmakers to ban wild animals in traveling acts

Elephants in traveling zoos and circuses are routinely deprived of adequate exercise, veterinary care, or even regular food and water by exhibitors whose primary concern is heading out of one town to set up in the next. Photo by Randy Duchaine/Alamy Stock Photography

So many of us were saddened this week to learn about the death of Beulah the elephant, who spent most of her 54 years in captivity and chains, working for a Connecticut-based traveling petting zoo.

Beulah was just six years old when she was sold to the R. W. Commerford & Sons Traveling Petting Zoo. Although she was born in the wild in Myanmar, this elephant would never know what it was like to live free. Instead, she spent most of her life entertaining children and families at circuses and fairs, including The Big E, an agricultural fair in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Her owners did not even allow her to retire in her old age: just days before she died, she was seen ailing at The Big E.

Last year, a photo of Minnie, another elephant owned by Commerford who was forced to give rides to visitors at The Big E despite the fact that she looked sick, went viral on social media.

Beulah’s life – and her death – are stark reminders of the cruelties wild animals like elephants face when they are forced into captivity and life in traveling zoos and circuses. That’s why we are calling on lawmakers in Massachusetts, home to The Big E, to pass a bill now before them that would prohibit the use of elephants, big cats, primates and bears in circuses and traveling shows in the state.

Traveling zoos and circuses are no place for elephants or for any wild animal. The animals in these enterprises are confined for prolonged periods in dark and unventilated trucks and trailers as they are hauled from venue to venue for months at a time. When they are not performing, elephants are chained or confined to small pens and big cats are kept in transport cages that typically measure approximately four feet by seven feet – barely bigger than the animals themselves.

The animals are routinely deprived of adequate exercise, veterinary care, or even regular food and water by exhibitors whose primary concern is heading out of one town to set up in the next. Trainers use physical abuse, including beatings and instruments like bullhooks, electric prods, whips, chains and muzzles, to coerce animals to perform difficult tricks. Elephants are forced into headstands, bears are made to do handstands, and tigers are made to “moon walk” on their hind legs – all unnatural maneuvers that place great stress on animals’ muscles and joints and can result in long-term injuries.

This is why groups like ours have campaigned for decades to end wild animal acts, and the first big break for elephants came in 2016, when Ringling Bros. said it would end its use of elephants. The same year, California and Rhode Island banned the use of bullhooks on elephants. In 2017, Ringling went on to shutter its operation entirely, and Illinois and New York both banned the use of elephants in traveling shows. Subsequently, more states passed laws to protect wild animals in circuses, including New Jersey, which bans most wild animals in traveling shows, and Hawaii, which bans the import of wild animals into the state for circuses and other exhibitions. Municipalities across the country are also responding to citizen concerns. Use our toolkit to find out how you can pass an ordinance in your city, county or state.

These shows also no longer make good business sense. With more consumers now educated about the cruelties wild animals face in circuses, traveling wild animal acts are dwindling in popularity and ticket sales. Others have successfully shifted away from an animal-centered business model.

We are making progress at a remarkable pace, but Beulah’s heartbreaking story reminds us, once again, that we cannot move too fast to end the suffering and pain of innocent animals. The outpouring of concern over her death, reflected both on social media platforms and in the news media, should serve as a clarion call to lawmakers in Massachusetts to act on this important legislation. It’s too late for Beulah, but they can ensure that no other elephant – or any wild animal — suffers again at The Big E and other fairs and circuses in the Bay State.

Massachusetts residents, ask your lawmakers to support S. 2028 and H. 2934.

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