Should You Ride an Elephant? This Elephant Researcher Says No

I’m not perfect; I’ve definitely ridden elephants before. But when you know better you do better. Now, I am a wildlife biologist with a Ph.D. quite literally in elephant research and I’m here to ask you to please do better. Don’t ride elephants and be extremely skeptical of places where you can even just touch one.

Elephants are a natural magnet for people. They are so bizarre looking, which makes them cute, fascinating, and irresistible. As a young girl, I was super excited to see them at the circus or state fair, and my parents were more than willing to give me an up-close opportunity with an animal I loved.

forest elephants
I love elephants! I did my Ph.D. on African forest elephants in Gabon.

It was an experience that I still remember pretty well. I was in a tiny basket high up on the elephant’s back feeling a gigantic swaying back and forth motion every time the elephant took a step. I hung on to the basket for dear life with the feeling that I could fall off at any moment.

Not many people think how you get an animal that large to obey commands so well. The handlers make it seem like elephants are gentle giants that love to interact with humans, but the truth is pain. The handlers inflict pain to the elephant throughout their lives. Elephant suffering and straight up abuse is central to our enjoyment of a ten minute elephant ride.

Training an Elephant for Rides

To get the elephant under the handler’s control, they have to “break” the elephant, which involves separation from the mom, tying the baby down with rope, and beating it with the bullhooks. I kept it short here, but you can read more about this process in detail in this excellent National Geographic article.

As an elephant biologist, even without any physical abuse, the separation of the mom and the baby is itself extremely stressful. All elephants in the family group LOVE babies and of course their mothers do the most. When babies are born elephants almost seem to celebrate with many vocalizations and attention towards the baby. The separation from the mom and the baby at such an early age likely traumatizes the elephant for life as elephants have excellent memories.

Lots of people don’t like to believe that people beat elephants to get them to perform and in fact refuse not to believe. I’ve handed out literature at many circus protests and people would call us liars.

An old video of traditional elephant training at the Milwaukee Zoo.

Many operations will say that they take the utmost care of their animals and provide them with top-of-the line veterinary care. Their argument is why would they physically abuse their animals if they are their money makers?

But the truth is you really can’t tame an elephant without physical abuse. Elephants are not domesticated animals like dogs, cats, and livestock. Dogs can be trained through rewards only because they have coevolved with us for thousands of years. This coevolution gives them the ability to understand us more, for instance read our facial expressions and understand when we point.

African forest elephant mom and calf
The mother-calf relationship between elephants is really special. Female calves usually stay with their moms for life. Males disperse when they are 10-15 years old.

For elephants, the threat of pain is what keeps them under control. How can you tell? A tail tell sign is the bullhook.

Bullhook = Bad

The bullhook is what handlers use to train and control the elephants so you can ride an elephant. It’s basically a large pole with a spike at the end. The spike is used on the sensitive spots of the elephant like the backs of their legs or behind their ears.

Bullhook used to control elephants. Defenders say the bullhook is an extension of the animal handler’s arm, but why does it have to have a sharp hook at the end? Some have two points.

The elephant handlers will say that this is used to “guide” the elephants, but if this were the case than they would be okay using something without spikes. In the past, circuses and other forms of entertainment that uses elephants have said bullhook bans were unnecessary. After Los Angeles banned bullhooks, Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers Circus, said it would stop going there: “It took the view that it wouldn’t be a circus without elephants.”

You can see the handlers using the bullhook on an elephant at 3:43.

In other words, the circuses need the bullhook in order for elephants to perform. If they didn’t, they would have been able to perform in places like LA.

In contrast, zoos, at least those that have higher standards like those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, use something that looks like a gigantic Q-Tip (although note they can use bullhooks in emergencies). Zoos also have to train their elephants, but for medical purposes, not entertainment. They will use these gigantic Q-to indicate what they want the elephant to do (lift a foot, lend an ear for a blood sample) and get rewarded with a treat.

At the better zoos (like Disney’s Animal Kingdom where I worked), training sessions occurred behind barriers. In other words, the elephants would be on one side and the humans on the other side. This protects the keepers and the elephants can walk away from training sessions whenever they want to.

The Lives of Elephants for Rides

Even if you don’t want to believe that elephants are beaten to be put under control to ride an elephant, the lives of elephants as being rides for people are abuse in itself. In circuses, much of their lives are spent in a tiny trailer driven across the country or they are chained up when not performing or giving rides.

All species of elephants are social, highly intelligent (among the most intelligent animals on Earth), and need large amounts of areas to roam. A tiny trailer and walking around in a circle for rides is not going to do it!

Although riding elephants has become unpopular in the US (the elephant I rode was one at the zoo!) and other developed countries, there are still a lot of opportunities to ride elephants internationally. Decades ago, going to Asia was considered a really big deal and fewer people did it, but now it’s pretty common to see photos of your friends elephants on Instagram from their vacation photos to Southeast Asia.

On the surface, these operations may seem a lot better for the elephants: they are walking around in a jungle (when you are on safari) and are therefore in a more natural habitat and seemingly getting exercise. The owners may tell you even that It’s a sanctuary for elephants, but if you are riding elephants, it’s still not a good experience for the elephants.

If they are using a bullhook, this is a clear sign that the elephants are still being abused. Even though these elephants may look like they live in the jungle, they are also deprived of the social contact they need, are chained into place when not working, and often are overworked, sometimes even worked to death. Here are a few news stories on the topic:

An emaciated elephant that died from exhaustion. It performed until it collapsed. The owner dressed up the elephants for appearances so you could not see its ribs.

A Threat to Conservation

In Asia, many places capture their baby elephants directly from the wild so you can ride an elephant. This means they are taking a baby animal that could have lived its life free in the wild it and abusing it into submission strictly for human entertainment. It is better when the elephant is captive bred because captive elephants cannot be released back into the wild successfully, however, if the elephant is still giving rides and performing tricks, it is most definitely still being abused..

In Thailand, taking elephants from the wild is also a conservation problem; it is a threat to the Asian elephant as a species. In this article, Dr. Simon Hedges, co-chair of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group (and a scientist I worked with!) said that “one of the main threats to elephants in their main remaining habitat blocks in Thailand is … the illegal captures for the trade in live elephants.”

Elephants in the tourism industry are subject to the peaks and dips in the industry. True elephant sanctuaries don’t rely on tourism to fund their animal care.

It’s Never Really Safe to Ride an Elephant

Any time you are dealing with a wild animal, there is a danger to you. Remember, elephants are not domesticated, but tamed, and in many operations around the world taken directly from the wild.

In this case, an elephant shook a man off of his back. The article reports that this was most likely due to musth, which is a heightened hormonal state in male elephants when they want to mate with females (like rut in deer). The company/handler not knowing how to identify musth and/or allowing the male to be in musth with tourists is extremely irresponsible and dangerous.

No matter how tame a wild animal is thought to be, it can always change in an instant. This woman was famously and brutally attacked by her friend’s pet chimpanzee so bad that she had to get a face transplant. This woman was killed by a former entertainment elephant at a very reputable sanctuary that takes extremely good care of their elephants. These elephants ALL have traumatic histories and you never know if they will snap.

In addition to not riding elephants, you should also never support operations which do any of the following:

  • Use bullhooks
  • Make the elephants do unnatural tricks like painting, standing on small pedestals, balls
  • Have loud music and performances with and around the elephants

So maybe I convinced you that you shouldn’t ride an elephant, but what about all of those cool sanctuaries where you can feed elephants and pose with them? Here’s how you can tell a real elephant sanctuary from a sham.

Don't ride elephants

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9 thoughts on “Should You Ride an Elephant? This Elephant Researcher Says No

  1. So this is a ridiculous post. You seem to constantly flout your wildlife biology ph.D as a certificate that gives you some kind of authority on captive animal issues, but I keep coming across flagrant inconsistencies and lapses of logic in your posts.

    “Any time you are dealing with a wild animal, there is a danger to you. Remember, elephants are not domesticated, but tamed…”

    Do you consider horses to be tame non-wild animals? Then why do we castrate them to make them less dangerous and easier to manage? Were any of the elephants that harmed humans castrated? Think about THAT. Why bring up a chimp attack? Do you really think dogs, cats, horses, pigs, or ANY domestic animal has never maimed or killed a human? Because if you do you are obviously wrong. You might be surprised to learn that no chimp has killed a human in the United States.

    “Elephants are not domesticated animals like dogs, cats, and livestock. Dogs can be trained through rewards only because they have coevolved with us for thousands of years.”

    Wtf? Non-domesticated animals can’t be trained without rewards? Totally false. Even you don’t agree with yourself when you go on to discuss AZA training methods with a “gigantic Q-tip”. Furthermore, are all so-called domesticated animals tame? What about bulls? Feral cats? Wild horses?

    “The elephant handlers will say that this is used to “guide” the elephants, but if this were the case than they would be okay using something without spikes.”

    “For elephants, the threat of pain is what keeps them under control.”

    However, on your post about Myrtle Beach Safari, you criticize the use of an alleged bullhook surrogate that does NOT contain a sharp hook:

    “I believe this cane is a substitute for a bullhook to keep Bubbles under control.”

    How is this guy controlling the elephant without pain?

    So if bullhooks are so cruel, why did AZA zoos USED to use them? Was the AZA, up until a few years ago, condoning pain-use to train elephants? Why did an AZA spokesperson within your own link say:

    “Although it is a tool that professional animal care staff can use compassionately and appropriately, our experience now shows that it is unnecessary, and its historical association with abuse of elephants leads us to conclude that it should not be in any AZA accredited facility”

    That flies in the face of your claim that “bullhook = bad”, in fact, this statement suggests bullhooks are being banned solely because of appearances and people’s ignorant distaste of them, associating them with “circuses” even though they’ve been used for thousands of years (ankus). You haven’t provided any evidence that bullhook use is inherently harmful, which is not an attitude I would expect from a scientist. Instead, you seem to just agree with any evidence-free claims animal rights nuts say. Your research did not involve ankus-use and captive animal management and it shows, although you could be the most decorated expert in elephant management in the world and if you made these logical errors I would still call them out. I expect the same skepticism and objectivity that you would presumably utilize in your wild elephant research for this subject.

    1. Thank you for your comments Melissa. I state that I have a Ph.D. to indicate that I have an understanding of how exotic animals act in the wild. This is especially true for elephants as I studied African forest elephants for my Ph.D. I believe wild animals represent the most “natural state” and should be what zoos should strive for. For example, having natural behaviors in captivity as they do in the wild.
      Yes, domestic animals like any animal can injure a person. But the percentage is much lower. There are not nearly as many exotic animals in captivity as there are dogs and cats. It is also much harder to stop an exotic animals like a chimpanzee compared to most dogs when they attack.
      Tame animals can be trained with rewards, but not to the extent to do tricks for the public like in circuses or to be constantly touched by humans (like in cub petting). These animals are also separated from their mothers for such purposes, which I am against.
      Domesticated animals can revert to being more wild-like if they are not tamed when they are younger. Like you bring up feral cats, horses, etc.
      My suspicion is that Doc uses it in a similar manner as a bullhook in similar sensitive spots of the elephant. Maybe he does use a bullhook when not seen by the public and those spots remain raw. I recently watched a Thai vet assess elephants that were ridden, and they had open wounds. He might use it physically on Bubbles too, but that is pure speculation.
      As you mentioned, the AZA changes with the times, and this is to satisfy the public so they know the bullhook cannot be used improperly. I disagreed with the AZA using the bullhook years ago. I say bullhook = bad because it does cause pain and wounds to the elephants. As I mentioned before, a vet who worked for elephant riding companies in Thailand and was pro-elephant riding admits that it leaves open sores. You can watch it here: https://www.instagram.com/p/B–XjCbhs_C/
      Every scientist who studies elephants in the wild is against elephant riding.
      I have constantly asked trainers how they train elephants and they always say it’s about the bond. Yet they never describe the process to me. I would genuinely love to know. But if they separate the mom from the baby, in my opinion that is innately cruel given the strong both wild mothers have with their calves.

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