Meet Arna

Arna the circus elephant

Asian elephants, particularly females, are incredibly social animals who live in herds. These herds are known to spend their time exploring the forest, travelling up to 80 km in a single day and will take dips in the water when they can. They also love to eat large amounts of tree bark, roots, leaves, and small stems, as well as cultivated crops [1].

wild Asian elephants
Wild Asian elephants.

Life for Arna was incredibly different from this. 

In 1958, Arna was born in the wild. At approximately two years old, she was shipped to Adelaide and in 1964, became part of the Perry Bros circus. After 29 years, she was sold to Stardust – previously called Lennon’s – where she spent the next 18 years [2]. 

Arna’s only friend, Bambi, another Asian elephant, tragically died in 1996, after anaesthesia complications during treatment for an injured foot. Arna spent the next 6-years alone. Her life involved shackles around her legs, a small enclosure, constant travel, bright lights, loud music and crowds, and performing unnatural tricks for people all over the country – a far cry from the life of a wild Asian elephant. 

circus elephant Arna
Arna during her time at Stardust Circus.

In 2000, Animal Liberation campaigned for her release. Our calls were joined by fashion designer, Stella McCartney, the Pretenders’ lead singer, Chrissie Hynde, the Silverchair frontman, Daniel Johns, the spoon bender, Uri Geller, the German pop star, Nina Hagen, the Sydney bar owner, Justin Hemmes, and the Nova radio announcer, Bianca Dye.

Animal Liberation was accompanied by Dr Roger Mugford, an animal behaviour expert, to Stardust circus. They captured evidence and he wrote a report for the Department of Agriculture, highlighting numerous breaches to the Exhibited Animals Protection Act. Dr Mugford advised strongly that the circus be closed on the grounds of inadequate provision for its animals and many areas of public safety concern. Aside from keeping Arna alone, some other findings were:

  • She had no access to overnight shelter
  • There was no access to drinking water (a hose was put in her mouth a couple of times each day)
  • She had a poor diet
  • Her ears had been damaged by the use of an ankus or other short instrument, commonly used in cruel training methods
  • Her feet and skin were badly neglected, the E.A.P. recommends elephants receive daily bathing/scrubbing.

After the public became more aware of Arna’s plight, the circus brought three elephants to visit Arna. Animal Liberation was there to film her interaction with them and her distress when they left – as seen below.

In 2001, Animal Liberation took the circus to the Supreme Court on the basis of animal cruelty. Unfortunately, we lost the case and Arna was left to continue her miserable existence with the circus. In 2002, the circus agreed to pair Arna with Gigi, another lone elephant from Ashton Circus.

But the psychological damage from spending 6-years alone was already done.

Arna swaying – a stereotypic behavior and clear sign of psychological distress.

Filmed in 2007, in Wollongong, by a member of the public.

In 2007, at age 49, Arna killed her handler just moments before her performance. He was found face down with a broken back and ruptured aorta – a sign that she had crushed him. Mark Pearson, Animal Liberation’s CEO at the time, was informed by a trapeze artist at the circus that Arna and Gigi’s handler, had beaten Gigi with a piece of 4 by 2 timber, before approaching Arna. She had enough and took a stand for her beloved friend and herself.

circus elephants
Arna and Gigi at Stardust Circus.
Credit: Newcastle Herald

As it has been noted in other cases, elephants who kill, will kill again, and so the circus agreed to release Arna and Gigi to the Western Plains Zoo. This day marked the final day of elephants being exploited in Australian circuses. Arna and Gigi were finally able to experience a somewhat “normal” life, free from shackles, tiny enclosures, travel, loud music, and unnautral performances.

The zoo keepers said Arna was a very calm elephant, while Gigi had a cheeky and lively personality. The formed a close friendship with Burma, another elderly Asian elephant and all three would spend their days swimming in their pool, touching trunks, and sharing food [x].

rescue circus elephants
Arna and Gigi at Taronga Western Plains Zoo
Credit: Leonie Saville

In 2012, Arna peacefully passed away at 54 years old, due to age-related illness. She was mourned by Gigi. Gigi remained with Burma and passed away just last year, at 61 years of age.

While elephants are finally free from a miserable life in the circus (in Australia), lions, monkeys, horses, ponies, goats, pigs, and dogs are still made to perform several times a week. All of these animals suffer on some level due to their unnatural life on the road. Please help them, by never attending these events.

gigi ex-circus elephant
Gigi at Dubbo Zoo