While backpacking along the Appalachian Trail this past spring, I made a brief stop to replenish my dwindling stock of vegan food in the sleepy town of Erwin, Tennessee. While there, I had a conversation with one of the locals who relished in recounting a bit of Erwin’s notorious history for me. Yet much to my dismay, the most poignant story was one involving the tragic end of a traveling circus elephant named Mary.
As the story goes, Mary was purchased, at the age of four, by the Sparks Brothers Circus in 1896. Mary was Charlie Sparks’ first exotic animal, and as the show expanded she was forced to endure lengthy travel to perform for curious onlookers. As the decades of abuse and relenting travel pressed on, there emerged a sudden new change in Mary’s life. A brand new handler was hired by the circus, and promptly furnished with the tool of the trade – a bullhook. For those unfamiliar with this implement, imagine a sharpened fireplace poker, used to inflict pain in order to punish and intimidate elephants.
After enduring a full twenty years of abuse coupled with abhorrent conditions Mary’s will was broken, and one can imagine she lived only for fleeting pleasures she could scrounge on occasion. One such opportunity arose when Mary and the other elephants were being forced to march to a local watering hole in Kingsport, Tennessee. Mary spotted a tasty looking watermelon on the road and began to reach for it when the new employee sunk his bullhook into her ear as punishment. This was the last straw for Mary, and she flew into a rage ending the life of the handler.
However, the last chapter of Mary’s abuse was yet to be written; the backwoods townspeople whipped themselves into a fury, calling for her immediate execution. After a botched attempt to shoot her to death, the local sheriff “arrested” Mary and a mock trial was held in which she was sentenced to death by hanging. Unbelievably, she was forced back on the railroad cars and taken a short distance to Erwin, Tennessee, where she was hung by a railroad crane in front of a seething mass of onlookers.
Often times it is easy to look back at this century old abuse as a bygone practice, yet not much has changed for circus animals today. The bullhook, which regularly sank into Mary’s flesh, is now coupled with electric prods for today’s exotic animals. Grueling travel schedules are still enforced upon these sensitive beings, and the toll is clearly apparent in the pacing and head bobbing used as coping mechanisms. Yet with such routine and barbaric cruelty occurring behind the façade of the colorful tents, you may be pleased to hear there is pending legislation with the potential to end this abuse.
Animal Defenders International is currently running a campaign in support of the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, H.R. 3359. The bill is poised to effectively end the use of exotic and non-domesticated species in traveling circuses in the United States. The great news is this bill, introduced by Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), now has 17 co-sponsors, bi-partisan support, and is gaining momentum! Most importantly, while it is too late to save Mary from the caprice of her tormentors, it is not too late to tell your Congressperson you want to see change for the animals suffering the same abuse today.
HappyCow and Animal Defenders International would like you to ask your Representative to support the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, H.R. 3359, a bill that aims to protect elephants, tigers, bears and other wild animals performing in traveling circuses.
You can take action at Animal Defender International’s Break the Chain grassroots page www.breakthechainus.org, where you will find talking points, sample letters, and everything you need. You can even send an email message to your member of Congress by filling out a simple online form.