Circus decisions should prompt deeper understanding of Jumbo as a mascot

Frank Murray, who describes himself as a "master of the creative lifestyle," gives commands to one of his two Asian elephants as they raise the Big Top in Farmersville, Texas, Tuesday, March 20, 2007. Jim Mahoney/Dallas Morning News/MCT

Last week, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that they would be phasing the use of elephants out of their shows in response to a growing public sense of discontent about how the animals are treated.

This decision, if not entirely controversial, was a difficult one, as these great creatures have a long history of acting as the iconic symbols of circus entertainment and, presumably, serve as important sources of income in the industry. Perhaps the move to eliminate the role of elephants in circus shows was, in fact, a financial decision made with the economic liability of public discontent in mind. Regardless of the purity of intentions, however, the tangible consequences of this decision are worthy of commending, as they foster a sense of respect for a species that is so loved because of its undeniably human-like qualities.

With this action being taken and an implicit statement being made by two of the greatest circus industries in the world, perhaps it is time to look inward and examine the implications and moral standing of naming Jumbo as the Tufts University mascot, our own beloved pachyderm.

The story goes that Jumbo, an African bush elephant, became part of Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1881 and, due to his great size and calm temperament, immediately earned the circus great fame and fortune. Sadly but heroically — as many a campus tour guide will articulate — Jumbo perished only a few short years later after being hit by a train during a valiant effort to save the life of a baby elephant stuck on the tracks.

But, as is true with most folklore, this is not the whole story. By the time Jumbo became part of the Barnum & Bailey Circus troupe at the end of the 19th century, he had suffered a life of mistreatment and difficulty in his journey from Africa to North America. Captured just prior to the beginning of an historical era now deemed “the scramble for Africa,” Jumbo became the property of Europeans in 1862, serving as a token of societal advancement during the Romantic movement, when European culture shifted its focus to an interest in the contrast between nature and the rapid development of industrialized society.

Mascots serve an important purpose at universities, acting as the center of school spirit and creating a common symbol around which the student body may rally — a purpose that necessitates critical thought and conscious decision making when it comes to choosing such a character. The word “Jumbo” itself — which the university so proudly names as the “only college mascot in Webster’s Dictionary” — is derived from the Swahili word for chief, “jumbe,” and is now used without cultural reference or understanding for the purposes of English speakers’ semantics. And while the story of Jumbo as a non-human hero may, theoretically, foster a tradition of inspiring bravery and sacrifice, there is another narrative that is inseparably written into the elephant’s tale: one of European colonization, exploitation of foreign resources and peoples, and cruelty toward a great creature that was captured for the sole purpose of juxtaposing “advanced” civilization against the wilderness of the rest of the “natural world.”

There does not need to be a withdrawal from the use of Jumbo as a mascot, but when using this animal to represent us we must understand everything that Jumbo represents.

The question we should all be asking is, “what this all mean in terms of Jumbo’s role as Tufts’ mascot?” This issue must be examined in light of the recent shift of moral tolerance in the public opinion, and perhaps through the lens of a little more historical context than the fragmented story that remains in a peanut butter jar in the basement of Barnum Hall.