Is been claimed that the way you keep an elephant leashed is with a chain pegged to the ground which they can easily break, just since they have learned when they where younger they could not escape and they continue to believe so.

For example, Careers360.com

DO you know what they do to keep a circus elephant from running away? They tie a metal chain onto a collar around the mighty elephant’s leg – and tie it to a small wooden peg that’s hammered into the ground. The 10-foot tall, 5,000 kilo hulk could easily snap the chain, uproot the wooden peg, and escape to freedom. But it does not do that. In fact it does not even try. The world’s most powerful animal, which can uproot a tree as easily as you and I can break a toothpick, remains tied down by a small peg and a flimsy chain. How come?

It’s because when the elephant was a baby, its trainers used exactly the same methods. A chain was tied around its leg and the other end of the chain was tied to a metal stake on the ground. The chain and peg were strong enough for the baby elephant. When it tried to break away, the metal chain would pull it back. Sometimes, tempted by the world it could see in the distance, the elephant would pull harder. But the chain would cut into the skin on the elephant’s leg, making it bleed, creating a wound that would hurt the baby elephant even more. Soon, the baby elephant realised it was futile trying to escape. It stopped trying !

And now when the big circus elephant is tied by a chain around its leg, it remembers the pain it felt as a baby. And it does not try to break away. So even though it’s just a chain and a little wooden peg, the elephant stands still. It remembers its limitations, and knows that it can only move as much as the chain will allow. It does not matter that the metal stake has been replaced by a wooden peg. It does not matter that the 100 kilo baby is now a 5,000 kilo powerhouse. However, the elephant’s belief prevails.

Is this technique used and does it work?

  • ... for some reason, the expression "An elephant never forgets" comes to mind. I can honestly see this being a valid training method, but I have no evidence to back that up.
    – TheCompWiz
    Feb 3, 2012 at 17:39
  • 4
    I met a guy once who owned a couple of former racing greyhounds. They were so used to being tied up, all he had to do to keep them calm was attach one of those retracting leashes to their collars and let it dangle on the ground. The weight alone was enough to keep them from going anywhere.
    – Collin
    Feb 3, 2012 at 21:30
  • anyone know a zoologist? Feb 15, 2012 at 5:48
  • 2
    It is simply a matter of negative reinforcement. If the elephant has a change in stimulus that provokes it to try again, a fire or something it fears, it will.
    – Chad
    Apr 4, 2012 at 19:37
  • 1
    I have been tracing this story for a while, trying to substantiate the details. It appears in Richard Winwood's "Time Management" book. Here again it is a "personal" story that involved his own observations at a circus. Apparently there is some validity to the practice.
    – user10465
    Nov 26, 2012 at 23:01

2 Answers 2


The answer to this, is Yes, It does appear that elephants are typically restrained using a chain tied around the leg between the foot and carpus (wrist) however No, they are not incapable of breaking free

The story of the elephant and the breakable peg, which the elephant does not break crops up repeatedly in life coaching/positive attitude works a great deal. It is used as an analogy to people who are "set in their ways" (bad job, unhappy marriage etc). The teaching goes "If only we could break that 'peg' that we long thought we were unable/unwilling to, we could make our life better".

However, it appears that this is the way that elephant handlers, both in zoos and circus' restrain their keep's in order to interact with them in a safe manner.

Tethering keeps the elephant from wandering, provides security for other animals and people, provides order and routine for elephants, and enables conducting routine procedures, such as toe nail clipping, administration of medicine and cleaning the area.

Source Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of Elephants pp.79

Another widely quoted website on the matter belongs to an experienced german zoo kepper. Here is the about page - Translated to English. He has this to say about training young elephants:

At the age of about one year it is time for the little elephant to let itself chain for washing like the other elephants. This step takes about 2 months. First the little elephant gets a little foot chain put on. It has to learn to stand patiently while the keeper ties the chain around its foot. This is already quite difficult and requires everybody’s patience and sensitivity. The consistent training with the little elephant is also important. That means, once you have started, you have to continue this training every day. When the little elephant lets itself put on a chain, it is tied up at the forefoot for a short time. After this is going off smoothly and reliably, the same exercise is started with the hind leg. Now the elephant knows what the keeper wants and the keeper knows that the little elephant has learned e.g. being tied up. Now the elephant has also to obey.

So it appears that the conjecture that elephants are trained to accept tethering is a commonly used method among zoo keepers, and by extension, circus handlers (who fulfill the same role outside of a zoo setting).

However, to the crux of the question. Could they break free from a weak teather? They almost certainly could. This is evidenced by the fact that elephants on musth must be secured:

Domesticated elephants on musth in India are traditionally tied to a strong tree, or two strong trees, and denied food and water, or put on a starvation diet, for several days, after which the musth passes. Mahouts are often able to greatly shorten the duration of their elephants' musth, typically to five to eight days; xylazine is also used.

Since denial of food and water is considered animal cruelty in most Western nations, the approved method in these countries is to strictly isolate the elephant in a highly-fortified secure pen for a period ranging from 1 to 2 months until the elephant emerges from musth on its own

(The above quote is from the wikipedia article linked above - not the best source, but a good description nontheless)

Another fairly good indication that Elephants do, on occasion, break free of a tether is the advice given to Mahouts by the Food & Agriculture organisation of the UN, in summary:

Many elephants like to repeatedly try to break their chains in an attempt to get free. Some elephants which fight their chains are harmless but a sizeable majority, not surprisingly, are aggressive and dangerous.

Such attempts are an understandable try for freedom, but all mahouts will try to stop them because a loose elephant can cause huge damage to property, to crops, and to human beings.


The idea that anyone would ask if it is possible for an elephant chained to a stake to get loose is amusing.

When I was a child my parents took me to a party or something in the country. There was a sheep tied or chained to a stake, possibly to serve as a living lawnmower. My sister and I saw the sheep get loose and we told the man of the house. So he grabbed the chain and started pulling the sheep back to the stake. And I was shocked to see what a struggle it was for the man to pull the sheep back far enough to reattach the chain to the stake.

So if I remember correctly the sheep had managed to get the end of its chain off of the stake. Despite the fact that sheep don't have hands. Unlike elephants who have appendages which are precise enough to pick up a coin lying flat on the ground and strong enough to throw tree trunks.

So it seems to me that elephants can easily pull their leg chains off of stakes or pull their stakes up out of the ground. And I suppose the main reason why most elephants aren't constantly doing so is because they are reasonably contented.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .