Elephants can carry human tuberculosis (TB), a bacterial disease that is the leading infectious cause of human deaths worldwide and responsible for a global pandemic.  TB is also a widespread and deadly problem 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 elephants once used in the circus was linked to an outbreak among 13 humans in Tennessee, only one of whom had direct contact with infected animals. Similarly, in 2013, eight employees at the Oregon Zoo became infected after contact with an infected elephant. One of them developed pulmonary disease from a TB organism that was proved to be an exact match to the one carried by the resident zoo elephant. 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 the disease 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 infected humans or elephants and because of stress factors, including painful punishment, extreme confinement, variable water quality, an inconsistent food supply, and poor nutrition.
Recognizing the rising threat of the disease in elephants, the United States Animal Health Association produced the first edition of its “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, incorporating new discoveries as well as improved testing and treatment techniques. In 2012, the USDA promised that it would protect human and animal health by requiring elephant exhibitors to test and treat elephants for the disease according to the leading animal-health standards. But now, despite this promise—and even though cities and states have barred performances because of the threat of disease—the USDA has washed its hands of the TB crisis eliminated any requirement that exhibitors test and treat elephants for TB.
In the meantime, circuses have kept sick elephants on the road. In 2014, Ringling Bros. traveled with the elephant Banko, who was found to have active TB. In the months that it took to confirm the disease, she potentially exposed other elephants, workers, and countless members of the public to the illness. She had been exposed to TB during a tour the previous year, when an elephant named Asia contracted it. By failing to require testing for captive elephants and failing to bar potentially infectious elephants from travel and public contact, 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.
 TB Alliance, “The Pandemic,” accessed April 26, 2017 <https://www.tballiance.org/why-new-tb-drugs/global-pandemic>.