Circus Animals: Performers or Prisoners?

6 years ago

Late last month, the Vienna-based owner of the Ringling Bros. circus agreed to pay a $270,000 fine to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to settle allegations that it violated federal animal-welfare laws in its handling of elephants, tigers, zebras and other exotic animals. It is the largest civil penalty ever assessed against a circus under the Animal Welfare Act in its 45-year history.

Among the allegations, USDA inspectors witnessed circus handlers making sick elephants perform and using the same wheelbarrows to feed meat to tigers that were used haul away their waste. Splintered floors and rusted cages holding big cats such as tigers, were also cited in addition to two escapee zebra incidents in Baltimore and Atlanta.

"We look forward to working with the USDA in a cooperative and transparent manner that meets our shared goal of ensuring that our animals are healthy and receive the highest quality care."

--Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment

Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. as well as Disney on Ice, will not admit to any wrongdoing, however, and merely wants the USDA off its back. As part of the settlement, Ringling also agreed to hire a compliance officer to make sure that all employees strictly adhere to the Animal Welfare Act in addition to undergoing compliance training.

"What remains to be done is for the public to be made aware of this history of abuse so that people will know to keep their children away from the circus."


(Here is a video made by the Humane Society urging people not to attend circuses that showcase wild animals.) 

Personally, I cannot verify the reckless care and cruelties but I do know that many of these large animals were born in captivity and releasing them in to the wild would not be to their benefit. A zoo, perhaps, or preferably an animal sanctuary. I can say that the last time (and it is definitely the last time) I attended a circus, I did it to appease a little girl. It was about four years ago, I think.

During the show, I cringed at the sight of such majestic animals being forced into undignified behavior. It was like watching Queen Elizabeth being forced to clean a fitly toilet or Audrey Hepburn prodded into giving a lap dance. I had a hard time watching and though I said nothing to my young companion, I kept hoping one of the tigers would simply eat the man with the whip. Now that, I would clap for.

The thing is, I had seen elephants and lions in their natural state, roaming free in Africa, and it is not a reality you can unsee. I didn't need PETA to tell me how to feel, my gut told me plenty. Again, I will invoke a very telling Bizarro cartoon depicting an old animal trainer -- missing fingers and hand, wearing an eye patch and sporting a leg cast -- sharing his insight with a talk show host: "In my 41 years in the circus, one thing I learned is that wild animals do NOT aspire to careers in show business."

This week, I also received a timely invitation to participate in a local protest against Piccadilly Circus and I half considered it. (The Piccadilly elephants are the same ones who famously helped with the Joplin, MO cleanup, which I actually thought was a great idea.) Organizers include PETA, Animal Defenders International, and the Animal ACTion Network.

I won't be participating, however, as I consider these op-ed posts my own form of protest, although I respect the hell out of anyone who does anything at all - a conversation with a friend or their child, or maybe just quietly deciding to eschew all animal-focused circuses.   

I still love the circus but will only be attending those that make the humans do silly stunts, not the animals. There are plenty of animal-free circuses out there and the ASPCA has a wonderful list. (Cirque du Soleil, anyone?) Much like the cruel bullfighting traditions in Spain, I envision a time when all animals are phased out of the Big Tent.

Then, and only then, will the circus truly become the 'Greatest Show on Earth.'


BlogHer Section Editor, LIFE & GREEN; Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns; Proprietor, ClizBiz

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