Remembering Karen, the Elephant Who Suffered for 47 Years at Ringling

Published by Katherine Sullivan.

Elephants are meant to move about, roaming for miles over grass and soft terrain while engaging in activities that come naturally to them. For 47 years, Karen—a captive elephant formerly used in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—experienced a much different and darker reality: standing on concrete, often covered with urine and feces, for hours on end and being beaten and forced to walk across asphalt streets from the circus train to an arena.

Karen was still a nursing baby when she was torn away from her mother and family in Thailand nearly half a century ago, shipped around the world, and sold to Ringling Bros. Since then, she knew nothing but misery.

She tested positive for tuberculosis antibodies in 2010 and was barred from entering Tennessee as a result. Since at least 1997, this ailing elephant has suffered from lameness so severe that she has been dosed with anti-inflammatory medications used to treat arthritis and degenerative joint disease, yet she was still forced to travel with Ringling’s Blue Unit. She was chained for hours on end and hauled around in a reeking, stifling railroad boxcar from one venue to the next. She bobbed and swayed almost nonstop, a sign of psychological distress.

Karen has reportedly been viciously beaten with a bullhook—a sharp steel-tipped weapon resembling a fireplace poker—and her tail has even been fractured. Little wonder, then, that this tormented elephant has been aggressive toward humans, and she’s paid the price for her rebellion: She has scar tissue on her jaw, where a Ringling handler embedded a bullhook so deeply that he had trouble removing it.

Last year, after Ringling vowed to eliminate its elephant acts by May 2016, Karen was “retired” to the misleadingly named “Center for Elephant Conservation” (CEC) in Florida. While relief from the stress and physical demands of life on the road may have been a positive change, life at this facility is no fairytale ending for the animals. According to an in-depth PETA report, elephants at the CEC are chained on a daily basis, subjected to abusive training methods, deprived of opportunities to socialize, and forced to breed.

In the wild, elephants are active for 18 hours per day, foraging, socializing, taking dust baths, and exploring home ranges that span hundreds of miles. At the CEC, females are kept in unnaturally small social groups, while males are isolated behind bars. Without adequate space to move, they’re prone to arthritis and foot diseases—both of which can be life-threatening.

But even Karen’s so-called “retirement” was short-lived. In August 2016, she was moved to the San Antonio Zoo to be put on display.

Karen’s Comrades Still Need Your Help

Thank you to everyone who has picked up a protest sign, passed out leaflets, written letters, shared videos, called legislators, spoken to family members, and been part of an unwavering pursuit of freedom for animals. Ringling’s demise wouldn’t have happened without you.

But there’s still work to be done. Elephants just like Karen continue to be used in circuses around the country, and they need your help. Tell the Carson & Barnes, Garden Bros., and UniverSoul circuses to end all cruel animal acts, and click the button below to pledge never to go to a circus that uses animals. Please, speak up now—for Karen and all other animals being abused in the entertainment industry.

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“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind