On 20 August 1994, an international uproar was caused by an incident involving a female African elephant who went on a rampage in Honolulu, Hawaii. The animal, Tyke, was ‘performing’ during an event for Circus International when, before hundreds of horrified spectators, she grabbed her trainer, thrashed him about and killed him before turning on her groomer and goring him. She then ran from the arena and escaped to city streets, where for 30 minutes she caused havoc and threatened the public before police shot her almost 100 times. It took her two hours to die.
Why did Tyke, after years of performing for this circus, suddenly turn and attack the two people with whom she had spent most of her circus life? To answer this, it might help to take a look at the life she led up until that fatal day. Tyke’s keeper, John F. Cuneo Jr., owned Hawthorn Corporation, one of the largest suppliers of performing elephants and tigers in the USA. While most of Tyke’s life history with Hawthorn Corp. is not publicly known, that of Lota, another elephant kept by the company, is. In 1952, she was captured from the wild as a baby in India and torn from her family. Lota lived her first two years in captivity in a zoo in India before being shipped to the Milwaukee County Zoo in the USA, where she spent the next 36 years of her life with three other female elephants. At the Milwaukee zoo, the three elephants were routinely chained by two legs to the floor of their barn for at least 18 hours a day. Zoo staff conducted videotaped training sessions for new employees in which the elephants were repeatedly struck by bullhooks.
Over time, Lota became too aggressive for the zoo to handle. In 1990, she was sold for US$1 to Hawthorn Corp. In a widely publicized video, she was shown being beaten and dragged into a trailer as she fought her chains, which finally broke, sending her falling backwards and then sliding beneath the trailer. This video footage caused an international outcry and repeated pleas that the elephant be sent to a sanctuary. Despite the pleas, Hawthorn would not relinquish Lota and she was kept in chains throughout her life, being dragged around and rented out to one venue after another to perform. In 1996, she contracted tuberculosis. In 2001, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector cited Hawthorn for failure to provide veterinary care to Lota, who was ‘excessively thin, with a protruding spine and hip bones and sunken in eyes’. No improvement in her condition was made, however. Returning later that year, the USDA again noted Lota’s dismal state, reporting that she was in a ‘perilously emaciated state, with a wound on her left hip’. The elephant died from tuberculosis in 2005.
Based on Lota’s experiences, it seems likely that Tyke’s life was similarly wretched under the care of Hawthorn Corp. A report in Nature reveals that elephants, when exposed to violence and psychological and social trauma, can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Could it be that Tyke, after a lifetime of physical and mental suffering, intentionally lashed out and sought revenge upon those who had harmed her? Or was her attack the result of general psychological illness produced by years of confinement, captivity in sterile environments and physical abuse? We will never know why Tyke lashed out, but we do know that Lota’s experiences are by no means an exception. Today, thousands of wild or exotic animals are kept in zoos, circuses, marine amusement parks and private residences. Many are used to supply hunting ranches and game parks around the world. These animals are either caught from the wild or bred in captivity and traded around the globe to ensure an ever-ready supply. This is the global trade in wildlife, and all indications are that our infatuation with exotic and wild animals is coming back to bite us.
The trade is directly and indirectly leading to a rapid rise in new infectious diseases, the spread of existing diseases, injuries in people and the loss of species at a rate never before seen. As we delve deeper into the world’s forests and jungles to capture, kill and collect animals for the trade, we are inviting pathogens never before encountered to jump into the human population and wreak havoc. As we rip animals from their natural habitats, we are disrupting ecosystems in profound and perhaps irreversible ways, which will in turn cause a surge in some very deadly infectious diseases. And, as we ship billions of animals around the globe, we are ensuring that any diseases unleashed by this trade will impact humans everywhere.