The tragic life of Tyke the elephant

Recently, the press reported that three circus Elephants destroyed a car in a Danish seaside town, after a worker was seen to hit one of them with a stick one too many times. Now in a similar story, BBC4 has dealt with the tragic life of Tyke the elephant. Her’s is an example of the things that can go wrong when a powerful wild animal is held captive for entertainment, and offers a window into the miserable lives that circus elephants are forced to endure. In the same week that Catalonia have voted to pass a bill banning wild animals in circuses, CAPS ask again why the UK is lagging so far behind.

Many of our supporters and team members found the documentary a distressing, but necessary watch. Here, a CAPS volunteer describes what she saw:

Tyke the elephant BBC iplayerBBC 4
9 p.m. 22nd July
Circus Elephant Rampage

Last night’s harrowing but important documentary told the story of Tyke, a circus elephant who had simply had enough, and broke free from the circus. Stolen from the wild in Mozambique when she was a baby in 1973 and sold to the Hawthorn Corporation in America, she lived a short and unhappy life which ended in 1994 in a hail of bullets.

The documentary shows footage of Tyke attacking her handlers’ assistant, and killing her handler in front of a frightened, screaming and crying circus crowd. She manages to break free from the confines of the circus (injuring circus goers who are in her way) and wanders bewildered through the streets of Honolulu. When a member of the public tries to trap her in a parking lot, he too is attacked. The police open fire, shooting her repeatedly, and Tyke runs for her life. The incident comes to a tragic end when the police shoot Tyke total of 87 times, in front of distraught and confused public.

What specifically caused Tyke to attack at that moment we will never know, but the documentary begins to try to paint the picture.

At the time (1994), the Hawthorn Corporation was one of the largest owners of wild performing animals in America, leasing performing elephants to circuses all over the world. John Cuneo, the owner, claimed publicly that in his 40 or so years of animal circus work, never had an elephant broken out or run wild. The documentary, however, shows that in fact Tyke had broken free and caused havoc twice, less than two years before this final tragedy, and that no less than three ex employees had warned that Tyke should not be performing in a circus.

Several ex Hawthorn employees appear on the documentary talking openly about the use of bull hooks to control elephants in the ring. sometimes the mere threat is enough to control them, sometimes it needs to be brought down on their heads or hooked in their ears (this is just the treatment that can be seen in the ring). The hook is described as being used if the elephants are ‘getting lazy’ or ‘don’t want to do something’.

Ex employee Sally Joseph (elephant handler and compound manager), talks about the appalling attitudes of fellow handlers, describing it as a testosterone fuelled, macho environment with pride taken in being able to beat up a grown elephant. She states that elephants were routinely beaten until they screamed and gave in to their handlers will, the prevailing theory being: “as long as they are afraid of you they’re not going to do anything to you”.

Joseph outlines the conditions of the winter compound: ‘the elephants were lined up and chained in a barn for 22 hours a day’ (the two hours out of chains is practice time). Joseph describes Tyke as being unhappy in captivity and forced to perform, and having always been problematic, which resulted in more ‘discipline’.

Another ex employee, Tyrone Taylor (Tykes handler prior to the deceased one), also talks about Tyke’s unhappiness, and how when he first began to work with her she was ‘gun shy’ and always fearfully expecting some sort of discipline.

Both employees had warned that Tyke should not be forced to perform, both were ignored. Sally explains that it was more important to the owners to uphold a contract than it was to consider either Tyke’s well being or public safety.

Throughout, the documentary shows the humiliating acts that elephants are forced to perform, images of the winter compound and undercover footage of various circuses brutally beating elephants.

Tyke’s final day was preceded by four days confined on a ship traveling to yet another performance, 21 years of captivity, a humiliating life of performing, being beaten, chained and denied the simple act of behaving like an elephant.  CAPS believe there can be little mystery as to what motivated her to escape.

Following Tyke’s death, animal rights campaigners everywhere took to the streets and protested, pushing for a ban on animals in circuses. Steven Kendall, a lobbyist for the circus industry, was sent to deal with the fallout. He acknowledges that the Tyke incident was likely to affect circuses worldwide and moved quickly to organise counter demonstrations: admitting to paying people to take part.
Honolulu held hearings to ban wild animals in circuses at which Kendall gave evidence. He claimed that animals were only trained with positive reinforcement and that the acts only feature natural behaviour. The programme showed these claims to be lies: Tyke, had been forced to ride a tricycle, and there is footage of a ‘trick’ involving an elephant crawling under the body of another elephant, who was forming a bridge by balancing on two podiums.

 Unfortunately, the ban lost by one vote. However, while the law was not changed, the sentiment remained and no circus with wild animals has been allowed to perform in Honolulu since.
10 years later The Hawthorn Corporation were charged with multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act and ordered to release all elephants to approved facilities. The last two, Nicholas and Gypsy, now live a much quieter and happier life at the PAWS sanctuary in California.

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