Dr Rob Atkinson: Return of a medieval practice

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An elephant performing in a circus is one of the biggest contrasts between what an animal has evolved to do and what they are being compelled to do by man, and with the weakest of justifications. Even when battery chickens are kept in tiny cages some might say there is a justification, in that they are being kept for food. Circuses keep elephants to entertain.

Elephants are animals of enormous emotional complexity which, like great apes, show mirror self-recognition, an indication of greater intelligence. They have a concept of death and mourn their dead. They are also highly socialised; female elephants never leave their mothers and relatives, spending their entire lives together. Even zoos, where you have highly qualified staff, good infrastructure and up-to-date information, struggle to look after them.

Research shows nearly all UK zoo elephants are lame and overweight, and two-thirds show stereotyped behaviour, an indication of psychological ill health, such as swaying on the spot.

Elephants can be trained to cope with some of the stress of being transported, but studies of elephants being moved for breeding programmes have shown that a transportation event elevates the probability of an animal dying by 50 per cent for up to four years afterwards. Circus animals are moved every week during the season. Why are these medieval practices coming back to Britain?

The writer is head of wildlife science at the RSPCA

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