The Greatest Show on Earth

When I was little, I would watch cartoons every morning before school as I ate my breakfast. I remember the first time I saw the advertisement which would result in eight-year-old me, causing a lot of annoyance to my parents. When I saw the lions balancing on podiums, the dogs riding bikes and a clown twisting balloons into shapes, I was sold.I did  a remarkable job at nagging, because my parents caved in and took me to the big top.  I sat second row from the front, holding a stuffed animal I had won, thrilled by the greatest show on earth.

For the weeks after, I pretended to be the ringmaster, training the lions in my backyard. I was left with a memory that I thought I would treasure. However, I grew up realising that these animals in the circus shouldn’t have been there, despite the impression it left on me. I now would never visit a circus with performing animals, wild or domesticated.

After watching ‘Blackfish‘, I was directed by Netflix to view a documentary called ‘Tyke Elephant Outlaw‘. It’s a documentary that left me horrified. The documentary ‘Tyke Elephant Outlaw’ was released in 2015, recounting the emotional story of a circus elephant, named Tyke, who killed two people and went on a rampage in the streets of Honolulu, Hawaii.

The documentary begins with Tyke, bursting into the centre of the big top in the middle of an attack on her trainer. She is throwing around the lifeless body, another individual (the circus owner) attempts to stop her, however she attacks and kills him too. In the midst of archived footage is recounts of patrons who witnessed the attack. The animal fled  for freedom, from the circus into the streets before she was shot 87 times by police, and killed. She was made out to be a King Kong monster attacking the streets of Hawaii, before the documentary’s interviewees defend Tyke’s wild behaviour.

We learn where Tyke came from, about her naughty personality and her relationship with her African American trainer, who believe their connection was due to their unique instances of alienation – race and an exotic animal.

In her essay ‘The Speech of Dumb Beasts‘, Helen Triffin discusses the communication of elephants in the context of ‘The White Bone’ a novel by Barbara Gowdy. The novel characterises elephants through dialogue, however Tyke is humanised through what we depict as human qualities. Triffin claims that we converse for animals, based on our own interpretation of language.

‘We can only imagine the languages of animals within the confines of our own; there are inherent difficulties in entering into any dialogue with our animal others given that the other is precisely what is both supposed and repressed by language itself.’ – Helen Triffin

This is evident in the documentary, the trainers describe Tyke with words such as smart, defiant and strong willed. She is mourned over in a fashion we mourn over a human death. Her trainer explains that there was a special connection between them.

Despite her death, elephants and other wild animals were still paraded in costume around big tops world wide. Activists rallied harder following Tyke’s death, and Hawaii were scarred, but the rest of the world forgot.

Film, Water for Elephants received mixed reviews following its release in 2011. Robert Pattinson, portrayed Jacob Jankowski a vet, with a unique connection with elephant, Rosie. The movie was set in a 1930’s circus. However, video evidence has emerged that the star elephant, Tai who portrayed Rosie, experienced harsh abuse including beatings and electric shocks. The movie uses techniques to humanise Rosie, and make us feel angered by the training methods, which are similar to Tyke’s conditions, however the movie can be deemed more hypocritical due to its behind the scenes controversy.

Since the release of Tyke’s story, circus’ do operate with animals, and elephants still are subject to abusive treatment, even as babies with their mother’s no where in sight. Australia currently have no elephants performing in circus’. Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Bros in the USA have announced in March 2016 they are ending all elephant performances by 2018. They will be transferred to a conservation sanctuary in Florida. This will end a 145-year tradition.

Tyke gets shot at by police after attacking a man on a Honolulu street, 1994. Image via CBS

Despite this, the documentary isn’t as discussed by the masses as Blackfish is, so it possibly hasn’t reached enough people to advocate enough. It failed to achieve emotion in its interviews, and provided confronting images when playing footage of Tyke being shot in the street, a bloody mess. The trainers didn’t seem as upset as I was when discussing her death.

It’s no secret the greatest show on earth, can be great without animals. This was the message I wish the documentary had sent viral.


  1. Triffin H, 2013, ‘The Speech of Dumb Beasts’, Considering Animals, Ashgate, pp137-151.

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