An elephant was filmed apparently swaying in distress confined in a pen behind the scenes at a circus packed with spectators.
Animal-welfare campaigners say the footage, taken at a circus in the US state of Pennsylvania, demonstrates why keeping wild animals for entertainment should be illegal.
The elephant can be seen behind a curtain continually bobbing its head and weaving its trunk – repetitive behaviour that veterinary experts and campaigners agree is a sign of frustration and sometimes even mental illness brought on by being taken away from their natural surroundings and family members, kept in cramped spaces and coerced to do tricks.
A second elephant seen behind the first weaves around, unable to escape, with what looks like a wire people-carrying contraption on its back.
The animals were due to be forced to perform in the ring at the Garden Brothers Circus.
Meanwhile, a noisy audience claps and cheers to loud music accompanying another set, unseen in the shot, while bright lights sweep the auditorium.
Animal Defenders International (ADI), which released the video, said the music, crowd noise and bright lights would all exacerbate the elephants’ distress.
The group expressed dismay that keeping wild animals for circus tricks was still legal in both the US and Britain.
Jan Creamer, president of ADI, said: “The restricted space these elephants have to move around in is causing them mental and physical distress, resulting in the abnormal behaviour seen in the footage. Circuses simply cannot meet the needs of animals in small, mobile accommodation, and ADI has repeatedly documented suffering and abuse.
“Rocking back and forth in a tiny pen, their helpless, repetitive movements show they are going out of their minds. Elephants Isa and Viola have endured this for close to 50 years, and have made multiple attempts to escape. The public can help stop the suffering – don’t go to a circus with animals.”
Charity Born Free says that ensuring reasonable animal welfare in captivity is “extremely challenging”. It says “stereotypical” behaviour in elephants – caused by severe stress – includes head-bobbing, weaving and swaying.
Last year, the city of New York banned the use of elephants in entertainment such as circuses and parades.
In Britain, a Private Member’s Bill banning wild-animal circuses was objected to by just one MP at its second reading in Parliament earlier this month and is due to be presented again on April 27. The government has been promising for years to bring in a ban, and earlier this year pledged it would happen by 2020.
Activists have long accused circuses of hitting, whipping and starving animals to force them to perform, and of keeping them in insanitary conditions.
The Independent asked Garden Brothers Circus to comment on the footage and conditions in which it keeps animals but has not received a response.
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