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Baba is gaining support and attention

A petition campaign demanding freedom for Baba has passed 4.000 signatures and is signed by people from countries across the world. In western Norway where Baba now is travelling with the Cirkus Merano, there is political action to bring attention to her situation.


The petition campaign was started Victoria Ivansdatter Udnæs from Norway as a private initiative and is sponsored by the animal rights organisation NOAH. In one to two weeks it has quickly gained support and has 4.140 signatures at the moment of writing this article. The goal of the campaign at the start was 1.000 and now is 10.000 signatures.

The initiative was motivated by the frustrating situation concerning elephants in circus in Norway, outlined by «The World of Baba» in the article «Exploding a Norwegian myth». As stated in the petition text: «Animal rights advocates were one step away from getting a ban against circus elephants in Norway. The governmental Mattilsynet proposed a ban starting in 2015. However, the Minister of Agriculture, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, overruled this advice in October 2012 and decided to continue to allow elephants to perform in Norway».

Yesterday the liberal political party «Venstre» in Bergen, Norway as reported by the newspaper BA filed a message of concern with the local Food Safety Authority asking for an inspection of the Cirkus Merano to control the welfare and health of Baba. The circus is arriving in Bergen on March 31 and will have a series of performances there. The circus started its 2013 season on March 1. It has by now travelled from the eastern part of the country round the southern tip of Norway up the west coast in temperatures below zero and with performances almost every day.

«It has been well documented that this elephant suffering in captivity, in the same way as other circus elephants do», Per-Arne Larsen, deputy leader of the local Bergen Venstre said to the newspaper. The press contact at Cirkus Merano stated that there are no reason to worry about Baba and asked the local political representatives to stop behaving like «fjompenisser», a Norwegian expression for behaving like a fool.

Julie Andersland, the lead of Bergen Venstre, in an e-mail informed the newspaper that her party will in April renew its effort from last year to a have a local ban on the use of wild animals in circus and that the local authorities refuse to let circuses perform in public ground in Bergen. «The city of Bergen must take responsibility», she stated.

The Norwegian Food Safety Authortiy does not want to allow elephants in circuses, said senior advisor Maria Været Veggeland to the BA. «The Ministry (of Agriculture) however, wants elephants in circuses and it is they who ultimately decide», she added. The Food Safety Authority is working on new regulations following the Ministry’s decision to continue to allow elephants in Norwegian circuses.

Related stories : «Exploding a Norwegian myth», «When terror strikes – Baba’s story (1)» and «The sad World of Baba». See also expert interviews with Dame Daphne Sheldrick, Marion E. Garaï and Gay Bradshaw.

Text: Inge Sellevåg

When terror strikes – Baba’s story (1)

Baba is a female Asian elephant born in the wild in India, presently appearing with the Cirkus Merano in Norway. The exact year of birth is difficult to establish. A 2008 survey of elephants in European circuses estimated it to be 1970. This is the first part of her story, recounting how she was captured in the wild and probably was brutally broken down physically and mentally to accept the dominance by humans.


Baba according to a 2012 newspaper article based on information from the Cirkus Merano, was one of many elephants who were left alone. Her mother had been killed by poachers. This version have not been further documented or detailed. Professor Jacob V. Cheeran, a leading on elephant capture living in Kerala, India, says to «The World of Baba» that female Asian elephants are normally not hunted, since they don’t have a tusk. If a baby elephant (calf) is left alone, the herd will normally take it care of it. Other female elephants will raise the calf as their own.

The other possibility is that Baba was captured by a method traditionally used for elephant capture in India, where she was born. If she was born in the northeastern part of country would be «Mela Shikar», also known as «lassoing» or «noosing», says professor Jacob V. Cheeran, a leading expert on elephant capture. In southern India where he lives, elephants have been captured after falling into a pit. Elephants imported to Europe in the 1970s came from the northeastern state of Assam. The picture above is from the web site of George Munro, one of the companies possibly importing Baba. The picture shows a young elephant led to an elephant in Assam by tame elephants after capture. See more pictures.


The «Mela Shikar» method of capture involves hunting down the victim in a herd of wild elephants photo: Creative Commons/ Ekabhishek). An elephant herd may consist of up to ten or more animals and they are all females who stay with the herd all life. Only males stray out on their own when they are about 14 years and there can be three generations in a herd. Baba did not only enjoy the company of her mother, but sisters, cousins, aunts and grand mother. Then one day as they are grazing peacefully in a field or walking in the forest, terror strikes out of the blue:

» There will be three persons on the back of the tame elephant», explains professor Cheeran: «One will sit on the neck and will drive the elephant into the herd to disturb and cause panic and drive herd mates to all sides. Then he will try to isolate the selected elephant and the second person who will be standing on the elephant will try to throw the noose. The third person will try put the noose over the head. The poor animal will try to remove the noose using the trunk and at that moment a jerk of the noose will make it fall over the trunk and get it into neck. Then there is fast race along with the noosed one, till it is exhausted. If you follow it you will have scratches all over your body and feel a burning sensation after the event. Mostly sub -adults are caught by this method».


The horrors of elephant capture were documented by the Indian film maker Mike Pandey. While making the award-winning documentary «Vanishing Giants» (2004) about Asian elphants he witnessed the capture of a male elephant who searching for food together with its herd had strayed into contact with villagers. The elephant, brutally beaten, died after 18 days. The same had happened with 18 elephants in one year and was written off as accepted mortality during capture. Pandey published a news film about the shocking event which made the headlines in India and internationally. The Indian government immediately banned elephant capture and announced new rules. Now «Mela Shikar» and all other traditional methods are replaced by drug immobilisation.

As for Baba, having been brought to an elephant camp she probably underwent the brutal process of «breakdown» before she was exported to Germany. «She should have been broken before sending her abroad», says professor Jacob V. Cheeran. Baba was one year old or so when she was captured. An elephant that age weighs close to one ton and is already very strong. It cannot be controlled except by breaking it down physically and mentally to accept the dominance by humans.


«A breakdown means that the elephant is tied to a tree or similar, with ropes that bind its legs diagonally. The ropes are tied so tight that it causes extraordinary pressure on the joints, and thus pain. At the same time it is denied food and a fire is lit close to the elephant so that it can not sleep. The future coach then offers the elephant food and drink to show dominance and control. After a few hours or days, it is led by the coach with two other trained elephants to its new training ground».

This description of the «breakdown» is found in a report from the scientific advisory committee of the Norwegian Food Safety Authority. The agency in 2009 proposed a ban on the use of elephants in circuses in Norway with particular reference to the breaking process (the ban has later been cancelled). The committe wrote that most circus elephants today probably have been wild or their parents have been so, so that they are not domesticated. The elephants therefore with high probability have undergone «breakdown». The method according to the Food Safety Authority is unacceptable from an animal welfare point of view.

For a review of methods of elephant capture and «breakdown» see «History and biology of traditional elphant management» by Fred Kurt. Read also the 1927 articvle «Elephant catching in Assam», appearing in Asian Elephant Specialist Group newsletter in 1992.


What are the long-term effects on the mind of Baba and other elephants of trauma in early life ? Joyce Poole, research director of the Ambroseli Trust for Elephants writes in «The Capture and Training of Elephants»: «The capture of a calf and its removal from a family has an immensely psychological impact on the calf. The trauma it experiences through the breaking of close bonds leaves a permanent mark on its consciousness».

«Post traumatic syndrom (PTS) can happen», says professor Jacob V. Cheeran. This psycological suffering is a severe anxiety disorder, more commonly called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It can develop after exposure to an event like the threat of death to oneself or to someone else and sexual or physical abuse and is usually associated with humans. In 2005, however, the American psychologist Gay Bradshaw discovered that wild elephants in Africa attacking villages showed signs of PTSD. The disorder manifests in flashbacks to the trauma and nightmares and can result in sudden aggression.

«But by this time it should be over although elephants are blessed with long memory», says professor Cheeran. «One of the greatest things about elephants are their capacity of adaptability», he adds. Cheeran thinks that Baba by now, at the age of over 40 years, has left the social trauma and the horror of capture in her early life behind. He also thinks that the life with her female owner and trainer Adriana Folco Althoff will meet the behavioural and to some extent physiological needs of both».

So is the life in circus really the best life she can hope for ? Is she content under the circumstances – or is she frustrated, bored and sad like Dr. Marion E. Garaï told «The World of Baba» after seeing videos showing Baba’s stereotypic behaviour, the continuous swaying from side to side with her body and head ? What else has Baba experienced, after she came to Germany and was trained to be a circus elephant ?

Text: Inge Sellevåg

The sad world of Baba

«The World of Baba» is an information blog about elephants in circus written by the retired Norwegian journalist Inge Sellevåg. The blog is named after and focuses on the female elephant Baba, born in the wild in India and currently travelling with the Norwegian Cirkus Merano.

Baba i teltet

According to a 2008 survey of elephants in European circuses Baba is born in 1970. She may be born one of the following years, since the exact birth year of circus elephants is difficult to state for sure. It has to be an estimate based on the size and physical characteristics of the elephant on import. Baba was after capture in the wild imported to Germany and according to CITES documents acquired by the Elephant keeper Amedeo Folco in January 1975. The Norwegian Cirkus Merano in its 2013 souvenir program says that Baba has been in the Folco family for over 40 years, i.e. born in 1973 or earlier. Press report based on circus information has stated that she came to the family when she was two years old.

Amedeo Folco trained Baba to be a circus elephant by the method «free contact». She is presently owned and trained by his daughter Adriana Folco Althoff. No definite information about Baba’s performances can be found in open sources on the internet until she and Adriana appeared with the Cirkus Merano in 2003. They continued with Merano in 2004, then spent two years with the Danish Cirkus Benneweis and came back to Norway in 2007. The following years were spent with the Dutch Circus Herman Renz. Both there and in Denmark Baba appeared under the name «Baby». Now Baba and Adriana is travelling with the Cirkus Merano in Norway for the third year running (2011, 2012, 2013).

Baba exhibits stereotypic behaviour, a known indicator of poor animal welfare and possibly of serious psychological disturbances. The behaviour was as shown above filmed by «The World of Baba» when Baba visited Åsane, Bergen, Norway on April 2, 2012. Dr. Marion E. Garaï, an expert on elephant behaviour, viewed this and other videos filmed that day and told the blog that Baba’s stereotyping says she is frustrated, bored and sad. It could be seen as Baba’s last way of avoiding madness, Garaï said.

The famous Dame Daphne Sheldrick who has reared orphaned elephants all her grown life, said that the stereotypic behaviour of elephants in zoos and circuses indicates psychosis due to the cruel and unnatural conditions in which they are held and is indicative of frustration and psychological suffering. The American psychologist and ecologist Gay Bradshaw said the circus life of Baba should be ended immediately: «Make a diagnosis and start the treatment immediately. One does not need to be an expert on elephants to see that Baba is broken in spirit and mind».

Inge Sellevåg before retirement worked with the newspaper Bergens Tidende in Bergen, Norway for 42 years (1968-2010). He specialized in popular science, communicating research and investigative journalism. He was in 2000 awarded the Den store journalistprisen. The blog is endorsed by the European Elephant Group (EEG) and Inge Sellevåg is a member of the Norwegian animal rights organisation NOAH, which runs a campaign aginst the use of elephants and other wild animals in circus. The Norwegian government was one step away from implementing a ban on elephants in circus, but in 2012 decided to allow them to perform.

The decision was yet an example of Norway exploding the myth of itself as a nation protecting animals and the environment and caused frustration and anger among animal welfare advocates. A petition campaign demanding the freedom of Baba was started short time ago and sponsored by NOAH. The campaign has reached almost 4.000 signings and was initiated by another private person not affiliated with «The World of Baba». The petition, however, with the permission of the blog author refers to expert opinions published by the blog.

Text: Inge Sellevåg

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