The circus life is no life for wild and exotic animals.
Believe me, I tried to weigh both sides of the controversy when preparing to write a review of the circus I took my kids to see at the Staples Center. Prior to the show, I had planned to write a whole different type of article. But after picking up our tickets and heading over to the entrance of the stadium, my family was stopped by a group of protesters. They carried signs that declared how cruel circuses are to animals. Most ticket holders and passersby were ignoring these people, but something made me pause. I thought back to a few months ago when a small circus came to town and set up camp in a large public parking lot near my kids’ school. All the kids were excited about seeing the show, but when I mentioned to a good friend of mine that I intended to take my kids to see it, she was adamant that she would never take her child to see that kind of animal cruelty.
Now, I consider myself an intelligent person, but I had never heard anyone talk about animal cruelty in relation to circuses before. To save face, I’ll just blame it on the fact that we haven’t owned a television set in almost 5 years – but I still feel pretty clueless right now. I feel like a light bulb should have gone on in my head, and what she said should have made innate sense to me. Shoulda, woulda, coulda…
So, I put my friend’s comment in the back of my mind and said to myself that I’d revisit it later. Which I didn’t. Not until I was standing outside the Staples Center about to see a world-famous circus while being confronted by passionate animal activists. I took the flyer being offered and looked it over while my kids were busy perusing their show programs.
There were never any protesters or graphic pictures depicting animal cruelty outside of Madison Square Garden when I was taken to the circus as a kid.
So, I was curious…
And, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that prior to doing some research, I thought that:
- Wild and exotic animals could be trained without inflicting pain, much like dogs or mice, to do the difficult tricks we have all become accustomed to seeing them perform.
- That all trainers were strictly regulated and that they treated the elephants, tigers and other such animals with kindness and respect during their training period.
Sadly, however, by all accounts that I came across during my research, this is not the case in an overwhelming majority of instances.
While the animals do, after quite some time, become trained to perform circus tricks, it is a painful and humiliating road for them to get to that point.In my search, I found videos of unspeakable cruelty to these animals and testimonies from former circus trainers, managers and veterinarians who attested to the fact that in a circus environment, most animals live in sheer misery.
They are often taken from their natural environments as babies, pried away from their mothers and forced to train for long hard hours. They are coerced into doing ridiculous stunts that are in no way natural to their inherent animal instincts. In fact, their natural desires are routinely beaten out of them. According to experienced veterinarian Mel Richardson, in a video sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), trainers frequently speak of “breaking” new animals in. This basically refers to breaking their spirits enough so that they will do anything the trainer tells them to.
In another video, taken by an undercover reporter for Mother Jones magazine, there is footage where elephants and tigers are repeatedly whipped, cursed at, and prodded with sharp metal hooks.
Additionally, in a video narrated by the actress Edie Falco, and again, sponsored by PETA, images are shown of an elephant’s legs being tightly bound, his body stretched out and knocked over in order to teach him how to balance on a tiny stool.
Now I’m not saying that there aren’t two sides to every story. I’m certain that there are some circus workers and circuses that really are concerned about the welfare of animals and they do their best to take proper care of them.
I AM saying that from everything I’ve read, circus life for most animals is hard and cruel and that wild animals are best left in their natural habitat, or as close to it as possible.
It is not my intention to to denigrate any particular circus. In fact, one of the Publicists for Ringling Brothers Circus and their parent company, Feld Entertainment, has corresponded with me about how seriously they concern themselves with the humane treatment of their show animals. I was happy to hear about their ongoing work with animal rights organizations and their commitment to provide high quality care and protection for endangered animals. The PR rep. told me she had witnessed first-hand the love and concern that Ringling trainers have shown for their exotic animal charges. If you’d like to learn more about Ringling’s animal care policies or their animal conservation efforts, visit The Center for Elephant Conservation, The International Elephant Foundation and the Ringling Brothers Animal Care FAQs page.
And in full disclosure, I was horrified by another article I came across which made it clear that PETA is not so squeaky clean itself when it comes to the ethical treatment of animals. The Huffington Post reported on how more than 29,000 domestic animals have been cruelly “disposed of” while in PETA’s care over the last 11 years.
But I digress…
My goal with this article is mainly to make people aware that animal cruelty does exist within the circus industry. Exactly which companies are participating in this kind of deplorable behavior is what needs to be more closely investigated. It is up to us, the public, to educate ourselves and to keep putting pressure on the government agencies who grant circus licenses. We must make sure that they do THEIR due diligence and start shutting down outfits that are found to be using animal cruelty as a means to entertain and earn a living.
All that being said…I tried my best to be fair and balanced.
But, other than the aforementioned Ringling Foundation and website, I couldn’t find one article, video or organization that convincingly refuted the harsh treatment that circus animals receive or the cruel tactics that many trainers employ.
I also wanted to use this experience as a teachable moment for my kids. I talked to them about my findings and about how I wouldn’t ever be taking them to a circus that uses wild animals to do unnatural tricks again. I even showed my oldest daughter one of the videos I found that showed how the trainers prod, beat and abuse elephants. She was horrified and asked why anyone would do such a thing. I told her that it was complicated, but that some people care more about money than anything else, which causes them to make very bad judgments sometimes. She looked at me with sad eyes and decided to go tell her little sister why we could never go to an animal circus again.
When I checked in on them a little later to see how they had digested the information, they responded with the kind of forgiving optimism that only a child can muster:
We decided that from now on we’re only going to go see circuses with humans in them, like Cirque Du Soleil”.
I smiled and happily agreed.
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