The campaign to educate the public about the ethical treatment of animals has been long and difficult. Humankind has not been kind to the rest of the animal world. Many people believed that people had the assignment from God to dominate and use animals however they chose. Anyone who argued against this position was belittled as either soft or radical. Still, a growing concern for the treatment of animals has grown over time. In this light, journalist Carol Bradley recounts the relationship of humans and elephants in her recent book Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top.
Like Topsy, Last Chain on Billie is a book that will challenge many readers to rethink their love of circuses. Our American society has uncritically celebrated the fun of attending traveling animal shows since the early 19th century. From the beginning their have been dissenters who have reported on the harsh treatment of elephants and other animals by circus trainers. Topsy tells how the reports were ignored. Last Chain on Billie recounts some of the that story and brings us to the present, a time at which the reform cause has advanced but has still not stopped the abuse of elephants.
What is shocking in this book? First, the stories of training elephants as young as six weeks old to do tricks that endanger their health. Second, how hardhearted circus owners and employees, such as John Cuneo, can be; many insist that elephants enjoy their lives in chains. It sounds much like the argument for 19th century slavery. Third, how often the U.S. Department of Agriculture has failed to act when it has much clear evidence of violations of animal protection laws.
Last Chain on Billie is a surprisingly positive book in spite of the history of elephant abuse. The author recounts the increasing effective efforts of individuals and nonprofit organizations to expose cruelty to animals. Through the stories of individual circus and zoo elephants, Bradley shows how intelligent and loyal these animals are and tells how they can recover. Her book is definitely one with a mission.
Bradley, Carol. Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top. St. Martin's Press, 2014. 320p. ISBN 9781250025692.