Opinion: One elephant’s sad end can help others in CT

Tim Commerford feeds his elephant Beulah a marshmallow while introducing him to fairgoers at the New Jersey State Fair in Augusta for in 2013.

Tim Commerford feeds his elephant Beulah a marshmallow while introducing him to fairgoers at the New Jersey State Fair in Augusta for in 2013.

Tyson Trish / Associated Press

In September 2019 at the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, a shocking scene unfolded in plain view of attendees, as Beulah, an elephant forced to give rides while she was sick, died in front of them. R.W. Commerford and Sons, of Goshen, is the traveling and petting zoo operation in which Beulah spent her life.

One elephant’s sad end may lead to relief for countless others, however. “Beulah’s bill,” now moving through the state Legislature, promotes animal welfare and public safety by prohibiting the use of certain animals who in the past have commonly appeared in circuses and other traveling shows.

The key word is “past” because public distaste for wild animal acts has steadily grown in recent decades, closely tied to increasing understanding of the complex physical and psychological needs of wild animals, which cannot be met in traveling exhibitions. In 2017, in perhaps the most powerful testament to changing public sentiment, Ringling Bros. ended 146 years of wild animal acts.

Wild animals in traveling exhibits are tightly confined, forced to endure months of grueling travel, bullied to perform silly tricks, and denied their most basic biological and behavioral needs. They’re trained with pain and the fear of punishment, using metal bullhooks, whips, electric prods, and muzzles. The documentation and evidence available concerning the suffering these animals endure makes for grim reading and unfortunately, existing laws and standards designed to alleviate some of their misery are weak and poorly enforced.

This is a point often overlooked, but these traveling exhibits pose a substantial public safety risk by bringing powerful, unpredictable, and stressed wild animals into close proximity with people. No amount of training or punishment can overcome the natural instincts of wild animals and, as we have seen all too often, trainers cannot protect themselves, let alone the public, when a captive wild animal has simply had enough. Since 1990, scores of people, including dozens of children, have been injured by big cats, elephants, primates, and other wild animals used in circuses and traveling shows. Just a few weeks ago, a camel escaped from a petting zoo in Tennessee and killed two adult men.

There are people trying to kill this bill by seeking an exemption for entities accredited by the Zoological Association of America, or ZAA. But a ZAA exemption would defeat the whole purpose, as they well know.

“ZAA” should not be confused with "AZA," the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. The AZA is a highly regarded and long-established zoo trade organization. The ZAA, formed in 2005, is a Florida-based zoo trade organization with low standards that promotes the private ownership of exotic pets, like big cats. No ZAA facilities exist in Connecticut.

A growing number of states and localities have already passed legislation restricting use of wild animals in traveling shows, including our neighbors in Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey, and 174 jurisdictions across the United States, including the cities of Stamford and Bridgeport in our state. If there is to be any real justice for Beulah, it will come in the passage of a law to end the kinds of practices that have caused her and other animals so much pain, suffering, and death, practices that have also put the safety of the public at high risk.

Annie Hornish is Connecticut state director of the Humane Society of the United States.