Elephants in Circuses


The Elephant, 1797. Early American Imprint Series, 1, 32075.

By: Hannah Kramer /

On April 13, 1796, the first elephant arrived on American soil. A ship, named America, brought the two-year-old female elephant from Calcutta at the command of Jacob Crowninshield. When the elephant arrived in New York Harbor, she hadn’t seen the sun in 120 days. Crowninshield displayed the elephant in New York, and he was quickly persuaded to sell her to another man for ten thousand dollars. Likely inspired by ancient Roman public exhibitions and medieval European traveling shows, the elephant’s new manager paraded the elephant across the United States, boasting her as “the most respectable Animal in the world”. This statement paraphrased French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc – the Comte de Buffon – “who’d declared the elephant closest to man relative to intelligence and soul”. As Susan Nance writes:

“A living elephant further reminded many people of the mammoth and the mastodon, whose bones had recently been discovered in various parts of the Northeast. She was consequently embroiled, not only in that tangle of patriotism, national security, and commerce, but also in a desire for mastery over the environment.

In addition, many sought out the elephant because they felt that she was living scripture. Many associated the Asian elephant to the creature described as Behemoth in Job 40:15–24. This traveling elephant marked the beginning of a long history between humans and elephants in America.


200 Years of the Circus in America. United States Postal Service, 1993.

Elephants have since become a staple in American attractions and entertainment, particularly in circuses. As Earl Chapin May, an elephant handler, stated, “A circus is not a circus unless it has elephants.” Why is it that we, as humans, have come to expect the genial circus elephant and marked them as a symbol of American circuses? The icon of the circus elephant is so engrained into our culture that even the United States Postal Service included an image of the elephant in a series of stamps commemorating the circus in 1993. The road to our perception of elephants is a long one, dating back many years and to many cultures, but circus advertising and entertainment played a large part in the elephant image that we know today. Human curiosity and expectations have greatly shaped the representation of elephants in American culture. By examining a series of Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey advertisements, dating from the 1880s to present day, we can begin to trace the evolution of the elephant image in America.


Van Amburgh: The Mammoth Elephant Hannibal, ca. 1840. John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Tibbals Digital Collection.

During the nineteenth century, elephants, often called pachyderms, were already a large spectacle. Promoters marketed elephants as the headliners of menageries, individualizing and determining the value of particular elephants based on physical characteristics, such as weight and height. The title of an 1840 advertisement reads “The Mammoth Elephant Hannibal”. The mammoth, referring to the unknown, foreign, and extinct, and Hannibal, referring to the elephants that Alexander the Great took to war. The ad emphasizes the brute strength and size of the elephant and labels the elephant as an old, historical creature. In a 1916 Ringling Brothers ad celebrating one of their first elephants, Big Bingo, the creature is titled as “the biggest brute that breathes”. By exaggerating the size of these creatures, the elephant is othered and deemed “out of this world”. At the same time, the elephant is portrayed in costume, beginning the trajectory of anthropomorphizing the elephant.


Jumbo, 1885. www.sideshowworld.com/ 13-TGOD/2006/DeathofJumbo.html

Jumbo, an elephant acquired by P.T. Barnum in 1882, became one of the most famous elephants of all time. After his tragic death, a collision with a locomotive just three years after he was bought from a London Zoo, Jumbo was memorialized and continued to be paraded by Barnum as a stuffed trophy, perpetuating the notion of a trophy hunt. In the early 1900s, Jumbo’s skin found a home at the Barnum Museum on Tufts University Campus until a fire in 1975 burned down the building. To this day, Jumbo is the mascot of the university. A number of violent incidents between bulls and trainers, as well as communities that the circus was visiting, led to a temporary shift in public opinion, fearing that elephants were “killers”, “monstrous” and “murderous”. This perception was briefly capitalized on, where advertisements played into notions of fear and the unknown. An acknowledgement for the danger of taming captive elephants seemed to illuminate human superiority for audience members. Seeing one trainer amongst a number of large creatures was a clear display of power and dominance.


Unknown, 1899. John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Tibbals Digital Collection.

By the 1890s, the act of viewing the elephant body was no longer enough, and therefore, elephant performances were developed to satisfy human entertainment needs. Rather than the elephant body simply on display, an interaction truly began between humans and elephants as circus acts combined the two. As Peta Tait writes, “Elephants were framed by concepts related to human movement. The elephant body became part of the apparatus used in the act.” This is seen in an 1899 poster from Barnum & Bailey.


Soon after, elephants not only begin to stand on their hind legs or tops of their heads, but they also appeared dressed in full costumes, played musical instruments, and participated in a game of baseball. They represented family values and notions of animal families, and simultaneously, they were idealized as creatures of war during World War I.


Richard H. Stewart, A Girl’s New Best Friend, 1931. National Geographic.

By the 1930s, many elephant acts had become feminized, as circuses had transitioned from male elephants, known as bulls, to almost all female elephants. Elephants, dressed in tutus, were trained to partake in ballets alongside glamorous women. Tait states, “There was a flippant style of humor about the elephants in commentaries…which juxtaposed the physical needs of female elephants with human female beauty care.” This humor undermined the harsh reality of the physical strain on elephants living in captivity.


Dumbo, 1941. http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Dumbo_(character)/Gallery.

In the 1930s and 1940s, a focus on the elephant as a “cute” creature reached a new height. Elephants possess features that mirror human facial expressions and emotions. This is one of the reasons that we find elephants more relatable than an insect, for example. By focusing on these emotive characteristics, the elephant became known as gentle and kind. A National Geographic photographicseries published in 1931 documented the circus, which placed the circus on a national level in terms of media recognition. One significant photograph portrays an elephant and a young girl standing together, which gives the viewer the perception that elephants are safe, reliable, and loveable. Elephants were often deemed appropriate for contact with children. Further perpetuating the American representation of the elephant, Walt Disney released the film Dumbo in 1941.


Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey: Romeo and Juliette, 1995. John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Tibbals Digital Collection.

America’s love story with elephants continues in today’s imagery. A 1995 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey advertisement showed two elephants, named Romeo and Juliet, with their heads placed together in the shape of a heart. These elephants are babies, capitalizing on America’s infatuation with the cute elephant image, and yet they are implied to have a romantic relationship through the projection of human characters onto the elephants.


Legends, 2013. http://www.ringling.com.

This year, in 2014, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are traveling the country with a show titled Legend. The representation of the elephant seems to come full circle, as we return to the connection between elephant and mammoth common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. So, if all of the “impossibles” have been achieved, what is next for the elephant in circuses?


Protesters at the Barclay’s Center, February 21, 2014.

Many animal rights organizations have been fighting to end the use of captive animals in circuses, particularly the elephant. Advocacy organizations, such as People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have protested and campaigned against large circuses, such as RBBB, exposing inhuman treatment of elephants. And yet, people still pay year after year, bringing their kids, to see “the greatest show on earth”. One major problem with anti-circus advocacy material is that it embodies many of the very issues that they fight against. The material often strives to tug at the emotional strings of the viewer by showing photographs or illustrations of the elephant at it’s weakest – abused and tortured by the trainer, and in turn, the circus. While these images document and expose a tragic truth, they lead the viewer to pity the elephant, and therefore, the photographs undermine the majestic and dignified qualities of the wild elephant.


I’m An Elefriend. PETA.

Similarly, advocacy material perpetuates the representation of the “cute” elephant, often in campaigns geared towards children. While this is an effective tool, it is no better than the attempts by circuses to draw the audience members to circuses from the early 1930s to the present day. The cartoon elephant is a misrepresentation of the wild animal, and therefore, skews humans’ perceptions of elephants. This becomes important to avoid, particularly when catering towards young children with little to no associations with elephants. This is the perfect opportunity to change the historical representation of the elephant, largely construed by circuses, and teach a new generation the real nature of an elephant.

A handful of animal advocacy groups, primarily PETA, are creating successful campaigns that challenge the circus perception of elephants, but there is still room to grow. In order to successfully combat the exploitation of elephants that Americans have propagated, we must shift the public perception of the elephant as an anthropomorphized creature towards the acceptance of the elephant as a wild animal that does not belong in captivity. If we don’t shift this skewed perception, we will continue to be desensitized to the exploitation and captivity of elephants that has been so engrained in our culture, which therefore, risks a great endangerment, and possible extinction, of the wild elephant.


My research, focusing on the portrayal of elephants in circuses, exemplified my understanding of the power of representation. As a graphic designer, I am acutely aware of the power of imagery and the tools used to represent someone or something in a specific way in order to persuade an audience. By narrowing my research to primarily the elephant representation in Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses and promotional material, I was essentially tracing a century long marketing plan. The leading issue is that at the center of this marketing ploy are living creatures. Though I have never attended a RBBB, or any other circuses with animals, I still have conceptions of the living elephant that stem largely from the construction of the elephant image by circuses. More so, many of my assumptions of the elephant have come from anti-circus advocacy groups and elephant sanctuaries. While I greatly value the cause that these entities work for, my research led to me look critically at material created, not just by circuses, but also by advocacy groups. While this is a rich subject with much more to be studied, we can begin by remembering that the image we see is not just that of the elephant, but it is the elephant entangled in a web of parties and interests that have constructed the image for you, the viewer.

Works Cited

Margo DeMello, Animals and Society (New York: Colombia University Press, 2012), 112.

Susan Nance, Entertaining Elephants (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013), 21.

Eric Scigliano, Love, War, and Circuses, (New York: Houghton Mifflon Company, 2002), 254.

Peta Tait, Wild and Dangerous Performances: Animals, Emotions, Circuses (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 76.

Ronald B. Tobias, Behemoth (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 3.


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