12 min read

Sick Elephant Forced To Give Rides At Fair

We have to help her ❤

Minnie looked sick and worn-down — but instead of being able to rest, the old Asian elephant was forced to give ride after ride to people at a fair.

Last month, college student Nicole Collyer attended the Big E, a large fair that takes place each year in Massachusetts, and she saw Minnie working there — and felt very sorry for the elephant, who’s about 45 years old.

Old elephant forced to work at fair
Minnie being forced to give rides at the Big E | Nicole Collyer

“She’s clearly very sick and her feet hurt really bad,” Collyer wrote in a Facebook post about Minnie that went viral. “She kept picking them up and shaking them and she was limping. She also looks malnourished and tired.”

“I cried for an hour last night thinking about her,” Collyer added in the post. “Her life must be so horrible.”

Elephant forced to give rides at fair
Nonhuman Rights Project

The team at the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal welfare organization, has been campaigning for Minnie to be legally recognized as a person and retired into a sanctuary for quite a while now. Unfortunately, things have yet to change for Minnie and the other elephants.

Minnie’s life has long been filled with upheaval and sadness. She was born in the wild in Thailand in 1972, but she was imported into the U.S. when she was only 2 months old. An elephant this young should still be with her mother, so this entire experience would have been very traumatic for Minnie.

Elephant forced to give rides at fair
Nonhuman Rights Project

“I could not definitively say how she was captured,” Courtney Fern, director of government relations at the Nonhuman Rights Project, told The Dodo. “The family that purchased her in the 1970s was told that she was orphaned, which likely means she was either stolen from her mother or her family was killed so animal dealers could sell the babies.”

Minnie spent the next four years in the care of a couple, who used Minnie in their traveling petting zoo, and also rented her out for parties, sales promotions and Republican political gatherings.

Old elephant forced to give rides
A handler holding a bullhook while Minnie gives rides to customers | Nonhuman Rights Project

Then in 1976, the couple sold Minnie to Commerford Zoo, which isn’t a zoo in the traditional sense, but a business that rents out animals for film productions, weddings, circuses and fairs. Besides Minnie, the zoo owns two other elephants, Beulah and Karen, whom the Nonhuman Rights Project are campaigning for as well.

At this year’s Big E Fair, Minnie and Beulah were rented from Commerford Zoo — Minnie was being used for rides, while Beulah was being used for “meet and greets.”

Elephant giving people rides at fair
Nonhuman Rights Project

In many photos of the elephants at the Big E, handlers are seen holding bullhooks, sharp prods used to make an elephant behave in a certain way.

“A bullhook kind of resembles a fire poker, and what the handlers will do is show the bullhook to intimidate the elephant and place fear in it to force them to do whatever activity they want them to do,” Fern said. “Or, if the elephant is not doing what they want them to do, they’ll poke them or pull on their skin with the sharp edge of the bullhook.”

Elephant being used in circus act
Minnie being used in a circus act a few years ago | Animal Defenders International

“In many videos we got, we saw the handlers actually using the bullhook on Minnie to force her to either move in a certain direction, or to stop doing whatever she was doing,” Fern added. “It was very upsetting that she was being physically harmed while she was being forced to give rides to people for hours on end.”

No one knows exactly what Minnie went through when she was young. But trained elephants are often subject to horrific training processes that break their spirits so they are more likely to listen to commands. In some regions this process is called the "crush," and can include being caged, starved and beaten until they’re so terrified of being mistreated that they’ll obey any command.

Fern was surprised to see Minnie giving rides, as she has a history of attacking her handlers, according to the Nonhuman Rights Project. If she’d displayed any of this behavior at the fair, she could have seriously injured members of the public.

Fern also had safety concerns when it came to Beulah.

“It’s alarming to see what they allowed the public to do,” Fern said. “There are pictures of people going up to Beulah — there are no handlers in sight — and basically hugging her trunk or touching her ears or touching her eye. That’s very dangerous, and that’s also very disrespectful because there’s no way that an elephant wants a stranger to come up and touch a very sensitive part of the body.”

But what concerned Fern the most was Minnie’s health — she didn’t look well enough to be giving rides to the public, or being used for any kind of entertainment.

“We sent footage to elephant experts … and they all consistently said that Minnie does not look well,” Fern said. “So we are concerned about her health and her well-being in addition to the fact that her rights are not being respected, and she should no longer be held captive and forced to give rides.”

Minnie and Beulah weren’t the only ones being mistreated at the Big E. Someone filmed a zoo employee mistreating a 12-year-old camel named Lurch, who was also rented out from Commerford Zoo.

“You can tell that this camel either cannot or does not want to get up,” Fern said. “He [the handler] is just yanking this animal, forcing it to move, and he actually breaks one of the chains that he’s yanking off of the camel. It really shows that when people aren’t watching, how they treat these animals, and it gives us even more concerns for how Minnie, Beulah and Karen are being treated when the public isn’t watching … if this is how they treat their camels.”

Not surprisingly, Commerford Zoo has been issued with more than 50 violations from the USDA, according to the Nonhuman Rights Project. For instance, they’ve received citations for not having an employee present while the pubic makes contact with the elephants, failing to give the elephants adequate veterinary care and for keeping their elephants in dirty, unsanitary enclosures.  Yet none of these violations have forced the zoo to relinquish control or use of its elephants or other animals, Fern explained.

Kangaroo lying in cage
A Commerford-owned kangaroo at a fair in Naugatuck, Connecticut | Nonhuman Rights Project

“They merely had to pay a fine, and no longer engage in the violative act,” Fern said.

The Commerford Zoo did not respond to The Dodo's request for comment on any of these issues.

The Nonhuman Rights Project will continue to campaign on the elephants’ behalf, Fern said. The public can also do their part by documenting any instances in which Minnie, Beulah or Karen — or any other animals — are being exploited.

Elephant being ridden by people
Karen the elephant being ridden at a New Jersey fair | Gigi Glendinning

“If anyone goes to a fair where these elephants or any elephants are being forced to give rides or engage in meet and greets, or are being used in any way, to take photos and document it, and to send it either to us,” Fern said. “Or if you believe they’re being abused … and there’s any instances of animal cruelty or animal welfare violations, send a report as well as the documentation to the appropriate enforcement agency.”

To help Minnie and Beulah, you can make a donation to the Nonhuman Rights Project.