Yvonne and George Kludsky grew up as part of circus royalty – fourth- and sixth-generation circus performers respectively. In the big top heyday of the ’50s and ’60s, circus animals were viewed as exciting and glamorous. Things are now very different. Reduced to one elephant named Dumba, keeping her has meant that animal rights activists have been “making the family’s life hell.” So much so that in September 2020 they packed up Dumba, and disappeared. 

In this article for The Guardian, Laura Spinney follows the Kludskys to Spain, where they ended up with their elephant. Spinney shows compassion for both the Kludskys, as they navigate a world where they are no longer welcome, and for Dumba, who has spent most of her life living in a pen the size of two tennis courts. Spinney finds no easy answers as she delves into the complicated issue of whether an animal the Kludskys consider “a daughter” needs, in fact, to be rescued.

While Arnal considers people who make their living from performing animals unfit to look after them, William Kerwich, president of the French union representing animal trainers, insists no one is better qualified to care for an animal than the trainer who has known it all its life. He is deeply suspicious of the do-gooders who set up animal retirement homes paid for by donations from a public who, he suggests, have been duped into thinking that all circus folk are animal torturers. “If there were to be a ban – and we’re not there yet – it is out of the question that our animals should go to a sanctuary where there is no one competent to look after them,” he said. The union, Kerwich told me, was standing squarely behind Yvonne Kruse.

What ageing elephants need, says Scott Blais, is space, autonomy and the company of other elephants. Blais, who set up a sanctuary in Tennessee in 1995 and another in Brazil in 2016, keeps elephants in a setting as close as possible to conditions in the wild, and says previous owners who have returned to visit their old elephants often marvel at their transformation. It was at the Tennessee sanctuary that workers witnessed the extraordinary reunion of two former circus elephants, Shirley and Jenny, in 1999. The two had spent one season together at a circus when Jenny was a calf. After a separation of more than 20 years, they recognised each other and bent the steel bars of an elephant fence in their eagerness to get close to each other. They became inseparable, and for seven years, until Jenny died in 2006, their relationship was like that of mother and daughter.

Elephants have shown they can retain a bond with humans, too. Joyce Poole recalled her reunion with a wild African elephant after 12 years. When she called out to him, he recognised her voice, walked up to her car window, and “allowed her to touch him”, she said. Elephants also kill humans, in captivity and in their ever-shrinking natural habitat, but these numbers are tiny compared to the numbers of elephants killed by humans each year.