Imagine feeling sicker than you ever have before. Your chest rasps with each aching, labored breath. As you slowly plod past a steel wall, you catch a glimpse of your reflection and are shocked to see how much weight you’ve lost—just like your friend did right before she died. You’re scared and want to rest, but the people around you don’t seem to care. Using metal poles, they jab at you to walk faster, turn around, and perform confusing tricks that you don’t understand. It’s so painful, and you’re so very tired. You can’t wait for the day to end so you can sleep.
Today is World Tuberculosis (TB) Day, a time to remember that any human can contract this potentially fatal disease. But we must also remember that TB is deadly to other animals, too. TB is found in as many as 18 percent of Asian elephants held captive in the U.S. Since it spreads through the air, anyone who is in the general vicinity of an infected animal—elephant or human—is at risk of contracting the disease.
TB is so dangerous—and so common in Asian elephants—that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that elephant exhibitors follow strict guidelines to control the disease. But even though these guidelines recommend annual testing of elephants and removing animals from the road for a period of months or even years should they test positive, many exhibitors continue to exploit elephants without doing blood tests to help predict whether the animals have TB.
As a result, many elephants go undiagnosed until after they’ve died from this painful illness—and they could potentially infect countless humans before succumbing to the disease. At the Oregon Zoo in 2013, TB-positive elephants transmitted the disease to seven humans, including one who may have contracted the disease after spending only one cumulative hour working in the elephant barn. In 2014, an elephant named Banko—who was being used by Ringling Bros. Circus—tested positive for TB after she had been performing for months and potentially exposing other elephants, the circus staff, arena workers, and countless members of the public to the disease. And records reveal that Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC)—the dismal facility where the circus sends elephants who are not performing—has been under quarantine for years. As of late 2015, an elephant at the CEC named Icky II tested positive for a rare form of the disease, and more than half of the elephants at the facility were under quarantine orders related to TB.
What You Can Do
It’s important to remember, especially on World TB Day, that tuberculosis is a disease that primarily affects humans and captive elephants. To protect yourself, your family, and other elephants, never go to a zoo or a circus that uses animals. And tell the USDA to keep these sick elephants off the road.