Photo: Becky Phan / Unsplash

The circus is leaving town. After nearly 150 years in business, the “greatest show on earth,” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is “sealing its tent” for good, and the troupe’s final performances are set for this coming May.

“After much evaluation and deliberation, my family and I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will hold its final performances,” says Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld. “Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

A Weird, Little Show Hits the Road

The act has its roots in 1841 when Phineas Taylor Barnum (better known as P.T. Barnum) purchased Scudder’s American Museum in New York City and changed the name to Barnum’s American Museum. The spectacle brought an odd mixture of zoo animals, strange artifacts and freak show performers for onlookers to enjoy. Barnum would eventually take his unique menagerie of playthings on the road, marketed as “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling American Museum” after its New York hub burned down mysteriously in 1865.

An old Ringling Bros. Circus wagon in Iowa. (Photo: Carl Wycoff / Flickr)

An old Ringling Bros. Circus wagon in Iowa. (Photo: Carl Wycoff / Flickr)

Things would continue on this path until 1881, when Barnum partnered with James. A Bailey and James L. Hutchinson to create, “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, and the Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United,” later shortened to “Barnum and the London Circus.” The troupe would perform their first show a year later, and begin traveling in 1884. The production’s current title, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, became official in 1919.

For over 100 years, Ringling Bros. has dazzled onlookers with its infinite group of clowns, trapeze artists, and assorted performers working to make the “greatest show on Earth” not just a slogan, but a reality that families everywhere could appreciate. Like many circuses, however, the organization has been followed by allegations of animal abuse for years, and activists are heavily applauding its closure.

The Life of a Performance Animal

Speaking with Planet Experts, CEO of Born Free USA Adam M. Roberts explained the tortorous life animals forced to perform in the circus.

“The animals used in Ringling Bros.’ shows have languished in captivity day after day, year after year,” Roberts said. “They have been forced to travel the country in cramped transport cages, endure unacceptable training methods, and climb on stage under bright lights in front of loud crowds. They have had to live and behave utterly unnaturally, and it is absolutely time to respectfully retire them to live the remainder of their lives in peace.”

A lion practices its routine. (Photo: Flickr)

A lion practices its routine. (Photo: Flickr)

The Born Free Foundation began in England in 1984 through the efforts of Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (stars of the iconic film Born Free) and their son Will Travers. The group has been working hard to protect the rights of circus animals for over 20 years. Notable action occurred in 1998, a time when UK laws bore little to no protection for exotic animals used in traveling festivals. Representatives of Born Free, the Environmental Health Officers Association, and the Circus Proprietors Association joined hands to form the Circus Animal Working Party, which called for an end to the “undignified and unnatural conditions” sustained by animals in live performances.

Roger Gale, Leader of the Conservative Animal Welfare Group, agreed.

“I believe and I think many people agree, that there should be an end to the use of wild animals…” Gale said. “The conditions under which they are kept are woefully inadequate. The cages are too small, the environments they lie in are not suitable, and many of us believe the time has come for that practice to end.”

Conditions Improve, But Slowly

Two decades later, the fight is waging on. One of the major problems with animal legislation in countries like the U.S. is that most state and federal ordinances fail to take circus animals into consideration, though attempts to change this have been made through the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act, and the Big Cat Public Safety Act last year. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Animal Welfare Act into law, but as the primary tool for covering circus activity, it has been unsuccessful in protecting all animals used in itinerant operations.

Adam Roberts joined Born Free in January 2005. Now celebrating 12 years with the organization, he works with the American branch to spread the notions of compassion and empathy to the nation’s corners. While animals have been used in live shows for centuries, he attributes Ringling Bros.’ end to a combination of “education and enlightenment” amongst its varied audience members.

Does this circus tiger look happy? (Photo: greyloch / Flickr)

Does this circus tiger look happy? (Photo: greyloch / Flickr)

“People today are much more informed about what happens behind the scenes,” he explains. “We know more about the training of elephants, tigers, etc. Younger generations are much more informed and don’t want to go to circuses, so parents don’t have a reason to take them.”

Of course, not every circus employs animals. Organizations like Earth Circus in California, Cirque du Soleil in Canada, and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in New York feature a wide array of human acts to dazzle and tantalize the mind without subjecting our four-legged friends to performance conditions. Countries like Mexico have outright banned the use of exotic animals in circus acts, while recent legislation in California is working to fully remove bull-hooks from elephant training by January 2018.

Abuse & Horrors Continue Worldwide

But to say there’s room for improvement would be an understatement, and the unethical treatment of animals bears a level of prominence that threatens today’s morality as we know it. China, for example, bears no laws protecting animals from circuses in Suzhou or elsewhere. Creatures like cats and monkeys are repeatedly straddled, beaten and prodded during practice regimens for the purpose of instilling fear of their human trainers. Bear cubs tied from their necks to nearby walls are regularly forced to walk upright; those who grow tired and shuffle down on all fours risk strangulation, thus learning to move using only their hind legs.

Growing disgust amongst younger generations has repeatedly brought heat and speculation to these torturous acts. Positive action occurred in 2011 when government officials forced the country’s zoos to end all live creature exploits after video footage taken by Animals Asia emerged that suggested a wide array of abuses taking place behind closed doors. Segments showed elephants receiving electric shocks, bears having cables inserted into their nostrils, and wild cats having their fangs and teeth removed.

Xiao Bing, who heads an animal protection association in Xiamen, claims, “I saw one entertainment park where the monkeys seemed to have wounds all over their bodies. The manager told me the monkeys got hurt during live monkey-fighting shows.”

All this and more shows just how much work needs to be done, and Ringling Bros. itself has faced extensive criticism. In 2014, film and television producer Gavin Polone released an editorial in The Hollywood Reporter asking the public not to purchase tickets to their performances, citing cruelty to lions, tigers and elephants used in the shows. Two years earlier, animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released video footage of elephants being beaten with riding crops prior to performances by alleged Barnum and Bailey trainers and being tied to concrete floors for extended periods.

“Elephants walk hundreds of miles and live with big families,” says Adam Roberts. “To put them in a scenario where they’re being trained, chained and forced to perform unnatural acts is inherently cruel. Tigers are very solitary in the wild, but in a circus, they’re forced together in cages and made to jump through rings of fire. Wild animals are put in unnatural conditions and made to perform what humans want to see.”

Ringling Bros. later published a statement calling PETA’s evidence flawed and attempting to discredit the person who brought the footage to light.

“Working in PETA’s mailroom does not equal the decades of experience Ringling Bros. animal care professionals, veterinary technicians and highly trained veterinary staff all share,” the statement reads. It also cites regular inspections from federal, state and local animal welfare experts, which the company reportedly passed. While there is admittance to the use of bull-hooks, the statement says that such tools are “humane and appropriate” when working with large elephants.

In 2012, Ringling Bros. won $9.3 million settlement against the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) over purportedly false claims of elephant abuse. Company spokesman Stephen Payne has also blasted Polone’s claims of maltreatment.

“Our animals get better medical care than I do,” he wrote in response to the editorial. “Our elephants travel in custom-built railcars, which are climate controlled and video monitored. There is someone riding in the railroad car with them at all times to watch over them, making sure they have enough food and water. Like a family going on a road trip, we stop regularly so they can stretch their legs, and we clean up after them… We also work with the island nation of Sri Lanka, helping to fund an orphanage for elephants. A portion of every single ticket sold goes to help these elephants in Sri Lanka, which has one of the highest elephant population densities in the world.”

Ringling Bros. did face backlash in December 2011 when it consented to pay nearly $300,000 in fines to the U.S. Department of Agriculture following a probe that suggested it was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

“This settlement sends a direct message to the public and to those who exhibit animals that USDA will take all necessary steps to protect animals regulated under the Animal Welfare Act,” said then Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The civil penalty and other stipulations in the settlement agreement will promote a better understanding of the rights and responsibilities of all exhibitors in maintaining and caring for animals under their care.”

In its statement fighting PETA’s accusations, Ringling Bros. explains that while it did not agree with many of the USDA’s claims, the decision to settle was made so the company could move forward and prevent halts in its entertainment schedule.

Tides Turning in Favor of Animals?

The circus’ closure comes at an ironic time. Just two weeks ago, SeaWorld performed its final orca shows in San Diego following extensive remonstrations from protestors, ending an almost 60-year run of killer whale performances. Captive mammals in the company’s San Antonio and Orlando locations will continue to perform into 2019, but January is already causing 2017 to be labeled “the year for animals.”

“Orcas live in large family groups, swim several miles a day, and dive hundreds of feet,” Roberts said. “Then you put them in a tank all by themselves not even a fraction as deep as their natural habitats… We hope this signals an end to animal entertainment. No wild animal should be held in captivity and forced to perform for public entertainment and corporate greed.”

Carson Barylak, a campaign officer with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), has been involved in animal rights since 2011. Speaking with Planet Experts, she says that not all abuses take on violent or noticeable forms, and sometimes occur through relatively subtle means.

“The source of these animals is problematic,” she explains. “For instance, tigers that display rare color variations, such as white tigers, have been inbred for that trait, and often have physical or cognitive impairments as a result.”

She also discusses a tactic known as “speed-breeding,” in which animals such as big cats are forced to breed regularly, only to have their cubs taken for use in pay-to-play events and photo opportunities. She encourages the public to think carefully about the methods of entertainment they’re supporting and to read between the lines.

“The proprietors often mislead customers, telling them that they are supporting conservation by paying to interact with the animals,” she continues. “These displays draw many people who are, in fact, animal lovers, and simply don’t know about the animals’ true quality of life… There’s an argument to be made that regulators’ failure to restrict or prohibit certain activities signals to the public that those activities must be okay. The assumption that continuing to operate implies perfect compliance with the law is erroneous. Many types of animal acts have managed to continue operating with minimal scrutiny.”

Stepping Up & Making a Difference

In the end, both Roberts and Barylak feel animal recreation can stop if members of the public are willing to take the necessary steps and just say “no.”

“Talk to elected representatives,” Barylak suggests. “Reaching out to policymakers is a great way to get involved. A number of states and municipalities across the country have enacted measures that limit the use of inhumane tools and techniques in animal acts, and they were driven by the public… Hearing from constituents has a major impact on members of Congress and their willingness to support bills.”

Roberts also urges residents to speak with corporations and enterprises indirectly involved in animal exploitation. Two major clothing names, Hugo Boss and Giorgio Armani, recently made the decision to go fur-free thanks to growing customer disapproval, and additional protests can lead to similar results.

“People interested in environmental action should feel inspired that the pendulum has swung in the past 20 years,” he mentions. “We’ve made real progress… We have a long way to go, but we’re making a difference.”

Ringling Bros. says it is working hard to find new homes for its animal performers, while elephants will be transferred to the Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Florida.

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