You may remember that early last year, Ringling announced that after more than a century, it was ending its live elephant act and retiring the long-suffering beasts to sanctuaries beginning in spring 2016. This news was greeted with jubilation among most animal lovers. After decades of litigation, protests, and undercover videos exposing cruel practices—and municipal bans on bullhooks and other brutal training methods—Ringling’s owner Feld Entertainment saw the writing on the wall and likely decided it was no longer worth the bad publicity or the aggravation.
Feld also no doubt hoped the controversy—and the animal welfare activists—would go away too. Well it’s not, and and we're not.
We’re not going away until Ringling, and all circuses in the United States, are animal-free. Because until a circus is animal-free, it cannot be cruelty-free.
Ringling still features big cats, mostly Bengal tigers and some lions, as part of its “Greatest Show on Earth.” These cats spend most of their existence caged, only to be released when it’s time to perform. They get no socialization with their own species, they never get to enjoy nature. Their exercise consists of pacing back and forth in a steel and concrete box. They are taught to do unnatural acts through threat of punishment, usually at the end of a whip.
It’s the only way to make any wild animal perform tricks it does not want to. It was how elephants were made to stand on chairs and do other silly things no elephant was born to do, for human amusement. Domesticated animals like dogs and horses willingly serve humans by nature. They need little coercing or intimidation. They don't need to be "tamed." Not so with wild creatures. Think about it: Would you jump through a hoop that’s on fire unless you knew the alternative was worse?
Life in a traveling circus is an extraordinarily stressful existence for any animal. They are transported for up to 30 hours at a time and confined continuously. They are terrorized and brutalized into performing. They often receive substandard veterinary care. If covert video recordings weren’t enough proof, there are former trainers and employees who’ve tried to shine a light on what goes on behind the scenes, usually with hell to pay.
The only law “protecting” circus animals is the Animal Welfare Act, which dictates the amount of time an animal may be tethered, among other things. Ringling has been cited for violating AWA (fines totaled $270,000 in 2011), but the fines are a drop in the bucket for a billion-dollar corporation like Feld Entertainment, so it’s hardly a deterrent.
As Cirque du Soleil and other animal-free circuses have demonstrated, animals are not needed to stage a great family entertainment spectacle. According to reviews, Ringling is compensating for the elephants’ departure by making greater use of its trapeze artists, daredevils and other human acts, to good effect. The human performers have made a conscious choice to be in a traveling circus—the animals have not.
Animal circuses are so last-century. They are gradually going the way of the dinosaur. Since Ringling’s announcement, other circuses have announced they are phasing out their elephant acts. But I fear the public will be lulled into believing these shows are now “humane” and so we can all bring our kids and enjoy the popcorn and cotton candy and sno-cones, guilt-free.
Ask yourself if you would choose this existence if you were a tiger.
We in the animal welfare community will not forget about them or abandon them, even if the mainstream media has.