Feb 11, 2018

Last Chain on Billie

How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top
by Carol Bradley

This book is about how circus elephants have suffered, and the development of a few sanctuaries that seek to give some of them a 'retirement' where they can live in a relatively natural setting for the end of their lives. I thought by the title of this book, it was about one particular elephant. It actually has a much wider span, and in some chapters Billie isn't mentioned at all. The book tells about the early rise of popularity elephants had in circuses, being shown and forced to perform often from a very young age. Lots of circuses vied to be known as having the smallest elephant, so infants were taken from their mothers sometimes just a few weeks old, to be shown off in the ring. Often forced to do tricks. The rest of the time usually chained in one spot. Needless to say, the book has a lot of details on animal neglect and abuse, on the emotional damage that elephants appear to suffer when being mistreated for such long periods of time. Many of them end up emotionally unstable with unpredictable behvior.

The book chronicles how circuses fared over the past decades, pressure to travel frequently with long hours on the road, to have the most impressive shows with the newest tricks, to show the most exotic or spectacular things in order to draw in crowds- and how all this was deleterious for the animals. It is a long list of disasters that happen when elephants strike out in torment or rage, and terribly sad stories of those who died from illness or being kept in poor conditions. To be fair, the book quotes many circus performers and trainers who claimed their methods were the only way to keep elephants in control, who said that circus animals experienced more stimulation having things to learn, compared to zoo elephants that just stood around all day. Lots of court cases brought against circus owners and trainers for animal abuse are cited- those details sometimes made my head swim. In the end, there is a very positive note when the chapters start describing how a number of elephants were taken from the circus (or in a few cases, a zoo that couldn't keep them properly) and placed in sanctuaries. How the sanctuaries worked to give the elephants space to engage in normal behavior and proper medical care. Some of them were not curable. Some took years to overcome their fears and violent tendencies. Very touching is the final scene where Billie finally allowed a caretaker to approach close enough to cut off the chain that had remained around her ankle for so long.

A lot of the details in this book were not new to me, having read other titles about the subject before. But the countless stories of baby elephants forcibly separated from their mothers, of adults dying at a relatively young age after years of being beaten, starved, suffering from wounds and infected feet- well it can be very hard to read. There is a lot of death in this book. Not just elephants. People killed by them. Tigers and other exotic animals that also suffered in the circus. And yet some trainers say they did their best by the animals. I can't buy that line anymore.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          320 pages, 2014


  1. This sounds like it would reinforce all the reasons I didn't like the circus.

  2. Exactly. But it's good to know things are changing.


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