Death Rituals and the Circus Animal

Article excerpt

In the smouldering heat of a recent July afternoon, I opted to huddle close to the air conditioner and watch elephant funerals on YouTube.

Oh no, don't get the wrong image in your head: These are not videos of zookeepers crying over a supersized casket, or of some mawkish circus ceremony for a departed big-top star. These are videos of the funerals elephants hold for each other or, in the wary language of animal research, of "what appear to be" the species' "death rituals."

The details of the funerals shift slightly by herd and time and place but are always more or less the same. When an elephant dies, or when a herd encounters the corpse of another left behind, they trumpet wails of grief. Then they gather around it in a silent vigil that can last for days or, for their most beloved matriarchs, even a week. Their graceful trunks caress the body, then give it a final peace underneath a shroud of leaves.

The whole ceremony is beautiful and still and sad, the depth of the creatures' grief immense. Like us and very few other creatures, elephants know their own selves in a mirror, and they know themselves in the bones of their dead. They will return to these gravesites for years on end, making pilgrimage to pay tribute to family who fell and never rose again.

Oh, but when an elephant dies in the circus, the circus packs up and moves along. The show, as they say, must go on.

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On Wednesday, Winnipeg's city council voted to ban circuses that feature exotic animals.

That ban cuts deep, right to magic childhood memories of magnificent beasts on parade, of the smell of hay and the taste of popcorn on the tongue. I hold those memories, too, and they were cherished ones. But as I learned the truth, they took on darker colours and more hideous hues, the palettes of wasting bodies and festering wounds.

Even a quick read through a public list of citations and government investigations into various circuses is grotesque: elephants made to march and even carry children on injured and deformed legs; elephants racked by arthritis exacerbated by confinement and strange poses; elephants struggling to survive with untreated tuberculosis. …