"Eight of them were living at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, and Billie was one," Bradley recalled. "Sanctuary co-founder Scott Blais convinced me that Billie's story best exemplified the suffering and remarkable resilience of circus elephants."
The three years of research and writing that went into the book is evident from the moving account of dozens of elephants who suffered, and often died prematurely, at the hands of their circus keepers. The Sanctuary provided much information about Billie's life post-rescue, "but to unearth Billie's back story I had to go digging," Bradley said.
Two of Billie's former trainers are prolific bloggers, Bradley said. "I was able to piece together quite a bit about Billie through their posts. I found a treasure trove of information in the archives of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, including newsletters that reported all sorts of gossipy anecdotes. "
To locate historical accounts, Bradley pored over old trainers' memoirs and searched the archives of the Museum of Natural History in New York. She attended an Elephant Managers Association conference and visited several zoos.
"Information about USDA's role came largely from government records kept on file by PETA," Bradley said. "USDA claimed to have destroyed them."
Today, roughly 800 elephants are still being hauled from city to city to entertain Americans. Their plight is gut-wrenching and, like the author, readers will come to understand elephants in a whole new light.
"I'm astonished at elephants' intelligence and exquisite sensitivity -- how fragile their psyches are, how easily traumatized," Bradley said. "They experience so many of the same emotions as humans. And the saying is true: they never forget."
And what was the saddest thing she learned? "It was an affidavit by the late Ringling Bros. trainer Sammy Haddock, who described in anguishing detail how trainers to this day go about separating baby elephants from their mothers and teaching them stunts -- and how upset this made the grown elephants who could hear their cries. That gave me nightmares."
Equally depressing is that conditions for circus animals have not improved over the years, "except for the fact that fewer elephants are beaten to death these days -- it's now illegal to import elephants to the U.S., so circuses can't afford to fatally punish what they have," she said.
Circuses still use "fear and force" to train their elephants and to convince them that their bullhook-wielding handlers were in command, despite the massive difference in size and strength.
Living conditions are still rotten, too, Bradley said: "Being constantly chained, spending hours boxed up in a tractor trailer or on a rail car, unable to interact naturally with one another – every aspect of their lives is miserable."
But it doesn't have to be this way, Bradley said. Ordinary citizens can take action to bring about an end to this shameful and exploitative practice, masked as family entertainment.
"Stop going to circuses that feature wild-animal acts, and let the circuses or their sponsors know why you're staying away," she said. "Write letters to the editor and explain to family and friends why animal acts are inappropriate given what we now know about the emotional lives of animals."
People should also support groups that advocate on behalf of captive wild animals and the two U.S. sanctuaries -- the one in Tennessee and the Performing Animal Welfare Sanctuary (PAWS) in California -- that provide a refuge for retired captive elephants.
It might take years until there are no more Billies suffering in near-silence. But one day, Bradley believes, the last chain will finally be removed from the very last circus elephant.
Watch Billie's last chain being removed: