In April of 2013, an elephant was shot by a mystery assailant at one of Barnum and Bailey’s temporary facilities in Tupelo, Mississippi. The elephant, named Carol, survived being hit behind the ear in a drive-by shooting, and has recently returned to perform at the scene of the crime, purportedly healed and happy.
Cathy Carden, Carol’s owner and trainer, claims that her elephant will not remember the year-old incident. In fact, she likely will. There is a growing body of research on the extent of elephants’ impressive memories. According to a September 2013 article on MentalFloss.com:
A pair of captive elephants have shown that these animals can recognize other friendly elephants even when they had only spent short periods of time together. At The Elephant Sanctuary—a non-profit organization based in Hohenwald, Tennessee, that is the U.S.’s largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically for endangered elephants—in 1999, an elephant named Jenny became very animated when a new elephant named Shirley arrived. After looking into the animals’ backgrounds, workers at the Sanctuary found that the two had performed with the same circus for only a few months—22 years earlier.
In addition, researchers found that during a drought from 1958 to 1961, only groups of elephants led by older females headed to alternate water sources outside the park and survived.
Carol, a 40 year old endangered Asian elephant, is one of less than 50,000 of her species left on Earth. Harming of one of these animals is a violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act and could result in fines and imprisonment. The investigation has yet to arrest a suspect and is offering an reward of $33,750 (a small price considering Barnum and Bailey’s 2011 fine of $270,000 for animal welfare violations) for any information leading to an arrest.
According to the Scientific American, elephants remember their enemies:
Researchers from the University of Sussex in England discovered that elephant groups with a 55-year-old matriarch (elephants live around 50 to 60 years) were more likely to huddle in a defensive posture than those with a matriarch aged 35 when confronted by an unfamiliar elephant. The reason: they were aware such strangers were likely to start conflicts with the group and possibly harm calves, Karen McComb, a psychologist and animal behaviorist at Sussex, and her colleagues reported in Science.
This incredible memory is what trainers like Carden rely on to control and train the animals. The threat of bullhooks and the pain from being stabbed by them keeps elephants in line during shows. Between random attacks outside the tent and planned abuse within the circus, captivity is an unsafe environment for the exotic animals.