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Why I Put Down the Red Nose

Written by PETA | June 16, 2010
Ringling Elephant

The following is a guest post from blogger and former Ringling clown André du Broc

I’ve spent much of my life in careers centered around making others happy. As an actor, I believed that my first responsibility was to the audience. They needed to be delighted and engaged by everything that I did on stage. This was particularly true of my time as a circus clown. If an audience’s joy depended on my dropping my pants, I dropped my pants. If it meant taking a pie in the face three times a day, so be it. Many may have thought that these actions were undignified. I saw it as doing my job well. It brought me great satisfaction to see families sitting together in a crowded stadium and smiling from ear to ear.

Every Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show begins with the ringmaster’s announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Children of all ages!”

I love that thought. From the beginning of the show, the audience is told to leave adulthood at the door. Be a kid again. Laugh. Smile. Enjoy!

The veneer of the circus was everything I desired in a career. It was a chance to make masses of people happy, a chance to travel all over, and an opportunity to take my silliness very seriously. What I found backstage, however, was very different. My goal is not to write an exposé of everything that happened backstage at Ringling. My former work as a circus clown has carried me far and opened a lot of doors for me over the years, and for that I am very grateful. But there was a world behind the curtain that I was not equipped to handle.

Audiences come to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth (“Big Bertha” to circus folks) primarily to see two things—clowns and elephants.

I spent most of my time with the elephants. In Tampa, I had a roommate who was an elephant trainer for a local zoo, so I had a deep fondness for these massive animals. If you look into the eyes of an elephant, you can’t help but remark at their soulfulness. They are filled with expression. When an elephant is happy, you can tell at a glance. Back in Tampa, when the elephants were allowed to play in the water, their eyes would twinkle, their bodies would waddle, and their trunks would curl up, pulling their large mouths into an unmistakable smile. They looked like they were having fun. They were happy.

I never saw the elephants in the circus make that face. They looked tired, weary, frustrated, angry, and so very sad. I stopped one of the assistant elephant handlers to ask why a particular elephant had tears pouring down the sides of her face. He laughed, “‘Cause she’s a bitch and the bitch got what was coming to her.” He then pointed to the welt on the side of his face from where she had slapped him with her trunk. He then showed me his bullhook, a 2-foot-long stick with a metal hook on the end that is used to train elephants. “I gave her about 10 good whacks across her skull. Bam! Bam! Bam!” he demonstrated. “Bitch’ll think twice before she messes with me.” This brutal assistant handler had never received any formal training in dealing with elephants. His job was simply to keep them fed, watered, and in line.

I remember that there was always a bullhook in the corner of the apartment back in Tampa. The metal hook had a blunt, rounded tip. My roommate had explained that it was used to hook the inside of where the mouth and trunk met. You give it a slight tug and the elephant will move in that direction. I witnessed many of the Ringling trainers sitting in circles, sharpening their bullhooks to dangerous points. They wanted the elephants to fear them, and the best way to do that was to inflict as much pain as possible.

Each of these great animals were looking at a lifetime of being chained to a wall, beaten, and marched out briefly to perform. Unlike those I left in Tampa, they would never roll in the grass or enjoy playing in the water.

The largest of the elephants, King Tusk, had a particularly sad story. When he first came to Ringling from another circus in 1986, he was the largest traveling land mammal alive. At 42 years old, weighing 14,762 pounds, standing 12 feet 6 inches tall, and sporting a length of 27 feet, King Tusk (Tommy) was a spectacular being. In the wild, elephants are constantly rubbing down their tusks to reduce the weight carried by their head. Tommy, however, had been prohibited from doing so for 42 years, and this had allowed his tusks to grow unacceptably long. In fact, where cracks would form along the tusk, metal bands were installed to keep them from breaking. His tusks were more than 7 feet long and put enormous weight and strain on his back. He had arthritis in his neck and back, and by the time I joined the circus in 1992, he could no longer perform any tricks.

Instead of retiring this great elephant with dignity and shaving down his tusks so that he could live out his remaining years in comfort, Ringling would have him simply stand in the center ring while two acrobats performed on his back.

Tommy was finally transferred to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 1998 after spending 51 years of his life performing in circuses. According to Two Tails Ranch’s records, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium sent him to live out his remaining years at their elephant facility in Florida, where at 57 years of age he was finally euthanized just before Christmas in 2002.

I am grateful for the experiences that I had in the circus. I learned about who I am as a person, an entertainer, and a clown. I learned so much and had amazing, exciting, and terrific experiences. Most importantly, I learned what dignity means. I filled my steamer trunk with plenty of it as I rolled it out of Clown Alley and away from the Big Top forever.

I will not go to a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show or any other Feld Entertainment production ever again.

Tommy would have wanted it that way.

André du Broc graduated from Clown College in the fall of 1992 and went on the road with Ringling’s blue unit in late October. He left the circus about a month later because he could no longer bear to witness the horrific treatment and living conditions of the animals. André maintains a blog at toomanycookies.wordpress.com.

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  • Amanda says:

    Andre, Amanda from CNN writing. I am looking to cover this story for our network– regarding circus animal abuse. Would you be interested in talking as a former employee? See my email and contact me. I think you’d be great.

  • seema white says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. This was particularly hard to read as I am a big lover of elephants. I can only imagine how heart wrenching it must’ve been to actually see these atrocities. My heart breaks a little each time to read about this disgusting brutality against such beautiful creatures. We must continue to educate people so they will stop taking their children to see these spectacles and also keeping push hard against these circus’ to end their use and abuse of animals. In a civilized nation this continuous disregard for living beings is embarrassing disgusting unnecessary and lacks any semblance of integrity. Makes me wonder who the true animals are.

  • Andrew says:

    No animal belongs in a circus. This is a great story sad but inspirational. People’s mind sets need to change in how they see animals and treat animals. How will there ever be peace in this world if people can’t recognise the pain they are causing?

  • Andrea says:

    Good job. I didnt even know the circuses did thisits awful. Im expecting a son this fall and Ringling is coming to our town.No circuses for my baby.

  • scameron says:

    boycott any entertainment with elephants I tell everyone who might think of going to any such event.

  • Chantelle says:

    I’m Australian and I have never been more happy until now that i haven’t seen elephants at any circus ive been to. I used to be a little disappointed when i was a little girl but now im estatic. Let’s hope this can eventually spread to all circuses all over the world one day.

  • Julie van Niekerk says:

    What I dont understand why people only reveal the truth after they have left a company. All the time it was in order for the cruelty to animals to go on!

  • antoinette says:

    I have never been to a circus and i never will . This story was motivational to say the least ! Thank you for sharing your story and thank you for leaving and refusing to work for a place that abuses animals . This also brought to mind a video i watched several years ago about an undercover investigation on the ringling bros and their abuse on elephants and tigers etc. Its crazy because although i cannot remember all the details of the video i remember one part vividly and it plays back in my head from time to time . It was after the circus and families were allowed to go backstage and get a closer look at the elephants and at the end of the tape you see and hear a boy who couldnt have been older then 5 trying to get his mothers attention saying ” mommy mommy that man just hit the elephant … he just hit the elephant” Its so sad because i can still hear the pain in that little boys voice YEARS later . THAT STUCK OUT TO ME THE MOST From that video simply because as a child you are intrigued and amazed by these wonderful animals and then to witness someone abusing it i could only imagine how CONFUSED and hurt he was by witnessing that .

  • Nancy Vernand says:

    This needs more media attention! We can comment all day bu we are educated about the cruelty of Ringling and the need to get every elephant out of that horrid inhumane murdering traveling evil. greedy. abomination The PUBLIC must learn the truth. The children must learn and yet this says email to a friend. If it takes all night please email to all of your fiends the media your governor and senators and reps. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE! As a long time elephant ADVOCATE i BEG YOU TO TAKE THE TIME TO EXPOSE THESE MONEY HUNGRY UNCARING RICH ENOUGH TO PAY OFF THE JUDGES IN THEIR CRUELTY AND INHUMANE CASE…almost 100 charges filed against them..they walked. Do not allow this to happen again. Thank you so much! Nancy Vernand

  • Melanie says:

    God bless you for sharing. I protested with a group of people the last time the circus came to Tampa. Shame on them.

  • Renee says:

    I took my children to the circus and when I saw the elephants I felt nothing but sadness. I hadn’t thought about it beforehand we were given the tickets but as I watched the elephants shuffling out from behind the curtain all I could think was “How sad that these beautiful dignified creatures are being treated the way they are!” I was sad the rest of the time we were there.

  • maureen says:

    Just found out the circus is coming to New Orleans on June 2427th 2010 guess who won’t be going!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jeanette says:

    I have never liked circuses. Peta is made fun of constantly. I praise and respect what they are doing….if they don’t do it then who will? Keep working to get your message out there I am but one small voice but I’ll do my part.

  • Sandi Sanders says:

    Thank you for telling your story. If I had one wish that could be granted right now it would be that no more animals would ever have to perform. It is a life of cruel slavery. In this day time it is unthinkable this kind of thing still goes on. This world does not just belong to us. It belongs to the animals as well. I would love for the people that have mistreated animals to get the same treatment in return. I’ve told my family that if U can help stop this in my lifetime I will do so. WE MUST PUT A STOP TO THIS. Humans alone are capable of entertaining. I cannot understand how any person can get enjoyment from watching an abused animal forced to perform tricks! This is truly sickening! Please keep retelling your story every chance you get. People need to hear it times need to change now.

  • Lizzette says:

    I dont understand how the masses have not come together to end circuses forever. This made me cy and no living creature should be bound by such a life. I hate humanity. We are the greatest species on this planet yet the greediest most destructive and most dangerous. We take kill and try to dominate everything. Let’s come together with a conscience and love for all living things to end circuses!!!

  • sophie gardiner says:

    Please keep on speaking out. The fact you were there and have worked alongside these ‘trainers’ speaks more powerfully than any undercover report can ever do. There are thousands of people out here who will support you and many animals that will be grateful. Good on you and your beautiful soul. We should collectively work to stop this abuse right now.

  • Claudia Alraun says:

    Please dont ever stop trying to help these poor elephants and stop ringling bross

  • sharisse says:

    i agree that all events and places including most zoos are a horrible place for anyone especially children to learn about the positive relationships we must have with the creatures with whom we share the planet…i live in san diego and grew up going to ‘the world famous san diego zoo’ and i speak from experience that not all zoos are animal friendly…i’ve known handlers who speak of the mental state of their caged charges sad sad sad…racing any animal dogs frogs or horses…zoos carnivals no no no…

  • Pat Cuviello says:

    Thanks for posting Tommy. I was protesting Ringling in San Francisco Bay Area in 1992 and remember “King Tusk” and the bands around his tusks.

  • Cat! =^-^= says:

    This story is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. It pains me to even watch elephants sway listlessly around in the cold concrete walls of a zoo. I can’t even imagine how I would feel if I saw them perform ridiculous tricks they had to be beatened to do. Surely if someone who stood to profit from the circus can walk away from it and share his story we as those who the circus hopes to profit from can walk away and urge others to NEVER patronize an animal circus or anywhere else that exploits animals for entertainment.

  • Jennifer says:

    omg that is so sad!

  • Amber Calabrese says:

    Thank God for you Andr du Broc I will help spread this saddening story. Please don’t ever stop trying to help these poor elephants and STOP Ringling Bros!!!!!

  • Nicola says:

    Thank you for respecting Tommy and all the other innocent animals in circuses. Thank you for leaving the circus. Thank you for telling us this story it’s made me even more determined to do whatever I can to end these animals’ pain.

  • ocean17 says:

    i couldn’t read the whole thing too damn depressing. elephants don’t belong in the circus no doubt about it. yes elephants eyes are filled with emotion you can even sense it at a distance as i have.

  • Kimberly Beck says:

    I refuse to go to the circus because of their abuse of the animals wild animals should live in the wild not be beaten to dance or perform I have boycotted circuses and this is why thanks andre for your story I hope others will read it too

  • Nina Bertleff says:

    Please help!

  • Aneliese says:

    Thanks for the post. As a child I never understood why people loved the circus I still don’t.

  • F. Jackie Loose says:

    Intelligent people with empathy do not want to see elephants this way and they also do not support you at all! It is inhumane and disgusting too!!

  • Laura says:

    If even a CLOWN won’t go to the Ringling Brothers’ Circus then neither should any of the rest of us. This Circus of Abuse this legalized form of animal torture should be SHUT DOWN permanently completely and IRREVOCABLY. If I was a little kid and I knew how much horror these animals have to go through there is NO WAY I would want my folks taking me to this Circus of Shame.

  • Lynn Cirillo says:

    Thank you for the commentary. I too will never go to any entertainment that involves elephants or any other animal. Animals are not put here for our entertainment except for the smiles they bring to us as our loving pets. Wild animals should be just thatwild. I do not like zoosor any other places that display wildlife. Thank you for allowing us to know what you experienced in the circus. Bless you.

  • susan harwood says:

    iv never liked circuses now i know why

  • Melissa says:

    Thank you for telling your story. I hope you can make a difference in these poor elephants’ lives. Please don’t stop using your voice to help them.

  • Denise says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. Hopefully it will help educate people about the horrors circuses entail. I didn’t know as a child what really happened at the circus nor did my parents. We went every year and I loved it. I believe my love of animals and special reverence for elephants developed as a direct result of seeing them in circuses and zoos. I admire you for leaving what could have been an exciting career for you out of respect for the animals.

  • carla says:

    This is so damn sad this story which is why I despise ringling for their sick cruelty and why I protested a circus in Hartford CT this past year. I am outraged that they can continue to do this to these beautiful creatures. There should be a law passed so that ALL elephants be released. Our god damn government has no compassion or regard for any animal. I wish there was a way to get them out because if there was I would do it in a heartbeat. These trainers should ALL go to jail or better have the same thing done to them with sharp hooks. Hell is waiting for all of them!!!!!!!

  • patricia wilson says:

    i have never ever taken my children to the circus…and they know why. when the circus comes to town the train parks on the tracks by our house. we can watch the elephants walk to and from the arena. i will go watch these grand beautiful animals walk. i am always so amazed and touched by their beauty but watch with a sad heart…i see everyone of those men carrying a bull hook and it makes me want to cry every time.

  • kimia says:

    You’re a hero Andre. Well done for refusing to be a part of such unnecessary cruelty. I wish you every success in your career because you deserve it!

  • Irina Stoehr says:

    Let those animals be just free!!!!

  • Danell says:

    I am a college professor in the Boston area and will post this information on my FB page and share it with my students. You see my evening students have children and the circus comes to the Boston area that said I’m sure that after sharing this web page etc. there will be fewer attendees at the next circus