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Tuberculosis at the Circus

Tuberculosis (TB) is fast approaching an epidemic rate of infection among captive elephants in the U.S. This potentially fatal zoonotic disease can spread through the air, which puts anyone near an infected animal—elephant and human alike—at risk of transmission. TB carried by an elephant was recently linked to an outbreak of TB among eight humans in Tennessee, some of whom hadn’t even had any direct contact with the animal.TB is primarily a disease of captive elephants. Between 1994 and 2010, TB was confirmed by culture in 50 elephants in the U.S.—approximately 12 percent of the country’s current elephant population. Most of these cases involved Asian elephants—the species most commonly used in circuses. Experts estimate that 18 percent of Asian elephants in the U.S. test positive for TB. The actual percentage of those who carry it may be much higher, as it’s common for TB in elephants to be identified during necropsies even when it wasn’t detected through testing while they were alive.

Elephants in circuses are particularly at risk of contracting TB because of routine transport that may expose them to other infected elephants and because of stress factors, including painful punishment, extreme confinement, inconsistent water quality, an inconsistent food supply, and poor nutrition.

Recognizing the rising threat of TB in elephants, the United States Animal Health Association produced the first edition of the Guidelines for the Control of Tuberculosis in Elephants in 1998 as a reference for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency charged with drafting animal-health laws. As our awareness of the disease has improved, revised guidelines have been drafted, most recently in 2012, incorporating new discoveries and improved testing and treatment techniques. Unfortunately, however, the USDA enforces policies that stem from an outdated version, written in 2008—before human susceptibility to elephant TB was understood to the extent that it is today!

By continuing to regulate performing elephants in the U.S. based on outdated testing protocols, inadequate travel restrictions, and almost no concern for public health, the USDA is endangering animal welfare and public health. For the sake of both elephants and your family, think twice before attending an elephant performance.