Why Are Renaissance Faires And Festivals In America Still Offering Elephant Rides? [Opinion]

elephant riding is abusive

The Maryland Renaissance Festival recently announced that they will continue offering elephant rides to their patrons in 2017 and for the foreseeable future. This flies in the face of all current information that clearly shows how cruel and torturous giving rides is for these gentle, majestic creatures. Many of the Renaissance Faires and Festivals across America have traditionally offered the rides as part of their entertainment package dating back to the 1970s, but in recent years, changing taste and perception among consumers, as well as protests from animal rights advocates such as PETA, have led more and more of these family related events to discontinue the outdated practice. The Kansas City Renaissance Festival became the latest, in April of this year, to announce that they would no longer be offering elephant rides. Why then is the Maryland Festival and others like it refusing to abandon this inhumane and wildly anachronistic practice?

To begin with, elephant rides at Renaissance Faires make absolutely no sense. The entire point of these festivals is to accurately recreate for a modern audience what life would have been like for a common person at the time of the Renaissance, which was a period of European history between the 14th and 17th centuries. There were no elephant rides in Europe during the Renaissance. Let me say that one more time for emphasis. There were no elephant rides in Europe during the Renaissance. To attempt to link these rides to Renaissance Faires and Festivals and claim they are an integral element of these events is laughable.

More importantly, it has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that elephant rides are unbelievably cruel and abusive to the unfortunate animals that are forced to give them. For starters, elephants differ significantly from horses in that they carry their weight below their spines rather than on top of their spines, which are curved and brittle. Elephant spines crack over time from carrying the weight of humans on their backs. The elephants, however, are forced to continue giving the rides year after year after year, and the activity becomes increasingly more painful over time. In addition, elephant handlers, or mahouts as they are known in Asia, use painful spikes called bullhooks, which they dig into the elephant’s ears and eyes to get them to perform acts, such as carrying people on their backs, that are not natural elephant behavior. Many performing elephants eventually become blind or have their ears ripped off due to the abuse that they suffer from the use of bullhooks.

elephant riding in late 1800s

Frank Murray, the owner of the unfortunate 43-year-old Asian elephant, Essex, who is forced to give the rides at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, is a veritable font of misinformation in his attempt to justify his continuing profit off the exploitation of animals. According to an article in the Capital Gazette, Murray likes to tell glowing stories about the love and happiness in children’s eyes when they get to ride an elephant, as if this somehow justifies torture and abuse, or that children couldn’t have the same response engaging in activity less painful to the unfortunate creatures. He also has a completely false explanation for why Essex engages in behavior known as “stereotyping,” where a captive and abused elephant will sway back and forth, sometimes for years at time without stop. Stereotyping elephants are actually suffering from a form of psychological trauma, as would you or I if we had been forced to undergo the same conditions, but Murray would have us believe that it, and the riding, are cute and fun activities that the elephants enjoy.

“The elephant is at play. She’s carrying weight, but it’s equivalent to person with a handbag or a kid with a backpack going to school. It keeps them always moving. When you see an elephant on chains rocking back and forth, animal rights people will say it’s in distress. The elephant just wants to move. It’s innate.”

It goes without saying that Murray, who forced Essex to participate in a 2106 rally for presidential candidate Donald Trump, where the poor girl was painted with the words “TRUMP Make America Great Again,” is, at best, absolutely clueless about what elephants do or do not enjoy or, at worst, deliberately attempting to deceive people who love animals and want to experience them but are not in possession of the latest or most pertinent information about how activities like riding affect them.

elephant at 2016 Trump rally

Even worse than the riding itself, though, is the process that elephants have to undergo in order to be trained for any kind of performance related activity. All performing or working elephants, and this is true whether they are in Asia, Africa or the United States, are put through the Phajaan (or “crush”) ritual. Phajaan is a Thai word that translates as “spiritual murder.” During the process, a baby elephant is taken from its mother, its trunk and legs are tightly bound, and then for sometimes as long as a week or more, the baby is starved and beaten, burned with cigarettes and poked with sharp objects, until its spirit is “killed.” Once the innocent creature has been broken and rendered docile, its human handler or mahout, will begin to feed it by hand. This teaches the baby elephant that its well-being and survival is dependent on a human master.

The point here is that there is nothing nice or humane about elephant riding. This barbaric cruelty towards one of the earth’s most sensitive and intelligent creatures is a remnant of a far less enlightened time and should have no place in what is supposed to be a recreation of Renaissance Europe. It’s time to demand that this torturous practice come, at last, to its ignoble end. Knowledgeable 21st century consumers demand better for both ourselves and the animals we share the planet with. Ultimately, however, the truth of the matter is that, if we, as consumers, stopped paying for elephant rides, the primitive practice would end in a matter of days.

[Featured Image by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States/AP Images]