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Feature
Circus Animals
Grim Furry Tales
by: Duncan Strauss

If you arrived at the Arrowhead Pond in late July to catch The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and passed by some kooks protesting the circus on your way into the arena, I have two things to say:


(1) One of those kooks was me. (2) On a related note, I'd like to urge you to never return to see Ringling Bros.--or attend any other show by a circus that uses animals.


Why was I outside the Pond and why am I discouraging you from attending any circuses that use animals as performers? Especially when I'm not a rabid animal rights activist?


While you won't see me splashing red paint on fur coats at a fashion show, and you definitely won't see me participating in one of those nude protests, I'm quite passionate in my love for animals, I'm enormously concerned for their welfare, and one product of those feelings--if you'll excuse the shameless plug--is that I now host a weekly Public Affairs show about animals on KUCI: "Talking Animals," 9-10 a.m. on Monday. One of the show's chief objectives is to inform listeners about a panoply of news, developments and issues in the animal world, often by way of the guest we interview each week.


But even if many of the show topics are serious--including exploring the plight of circus animals through an illuminating, if sometimes-disturbing interview with Chris DeRose, the founder of the 20-year-old Last Chance For Animals, the so-called "F.B.I. of Animal Rights" (that July 28 conversation is archived here--we typically don't allow the interviews or the shows overall to get shrill.


Most of the people who care about animals and want to help them--even the more vocal activists--increasingly seem to recognize that extreme positions and tactics tend to marginalize them and their groups, often compromising their effectiveness.


Besides, another of the show's major objectives is to celebrate animals through animal-oriented music (including "Name That Animal Tune") and comedy, purposefully introducing some shards of sunshine into an often-dreary world.


In striving for that balance, you could say the program format closely parallels the strategy employed at the Pond circus protest. There was nothing dramatic or over-the-top about the demonstration--no ticket-holder was accosted or spoken to in a raised voice, much less shouted at.


On the contrary, it was a very well-mannered, organized bid by a group of eminently reasonable individuals to educate those attending the circus about the sorry life of the animals they'd soon see perform. Far from any emotion-charged, unruly protest scene you might have witnessed in person or on television, this was a study in restrained outreach.


We posted ourselves at the half dozen or so "Free Speech Areas" locations ringing The Pond earmarked for such demonstrations; I was told the logistics of this protest were coordinated a few days prior with one of The Pond's top Security officials. Talk about civil. From those sanctioned posts, we politely handed to circus-goers leaflets entitled "Suffering Under The Big Top," along with a specific alternative: a list of circuses that don't use animals (including Cirque du Soleil, The New Pickle Family Circus and Circus Smirkus.)


All of which begs one giant question: What's wrong with circuses that use animals?


In this era of Jayson Blair and other high-profile plagiarists, let me hasten to add that while I've known many of these details for some time, additional sources for this essay include my interview with DeRose, as well as information found on the web site for his organization, Last Chance For Animals, and a PETA-produced site. Significantly, these sites also make it clear that these problems are in no way specific to Ringling, but endemic to circuses that use animals.


It's hard to single out the most awful aspect of a circus animal's life--they travel, for example, in small train cars and cages, often exposed to harsh temperatures and denied access to food and water for long stretches--but training might just top the list. Before we get into specifics, it may be useful to pose a few questions:


Do you think tigers--who, like most animals, are deathly afraid of fire--would be naturally inclined to jump through a ring of fire? Do you think elephants would be naturally inclined to balance on a colorful perch, stand on his hind legs, dance or play with a ball?


No chance in Hell.


So to achieve those and other sorts of unnatural behaviors, the training is relentlessly fear-driven, revolving around punishing and hurting the animals: whipping them, beating them with rods, shocking them with electric prods. It is believed that bears have their noses broken and their paws burned in order to teach them to walk on their hind legs.


Elephants are often restrained, then beaten until they understand not to fight back. The chief tool of the elephant training trade is the bullhook (or ankus), which is heavy and club-like and has a pointy, sharp tip. The trainers hit the elephants with the bullhook in various parts of their body, so that they comply--so they "learn".


Gee, that doesn't sound good. And it doesn't sound consistent with the information laid out in the Ringling leaflet, entitled "Caring For Animals At The Greatest Show On Earth," that was being distributed outside The Pond. Or, the overlapping text found on the pertinent section of the Ringling web site in which, under "10 Really Cool Things We Do For Our Animals," it's explained that "The training and handling of all of our animals are based on constant contact, daily routines and nurturing. This interaction builds a rapport between animals and handlers based on trust, respect and affection."


Hmm. It might be a little tricky to accept those statements if you possess even the most basic knowledge on this topic. But it's even more difficult to reconcile the way Ringling characterizes Ringling (they sound like swell folks, don't they?) with an important legal development on July 30, just two days after Chris DeRose spoke about circus animals on KUCI, and four days after the protest at The Pond.


On that day, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, allowing a case to go forward charging the circus with violating the Endangered Species Act for its routine abuse of endangered Asian elephants.


This case has been brought against the circus by a former Ringling Bros. elephant trainer, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and two other animal groups. Central to this case, the plaintiffs are expected to provide videotaped evidence and eyewitness testimony that Ringling Bros. beats its elephants with bull hooks. The U.S. District Judge who signed the order, The Honorable Emmet G. Sullivan, clearly felt the case has merit. (Click here to read the court's four-page order.)


Call me cynical, but I'm not sure how all this squares with the rosy, if self-congratulatory, picture painted by Ringling's printed and online material about its magnanimous efforts on behalf of Asian elephants at its very own Center For Elephant Conservation. Elephant Conservation? Feel free to insert your own joke here. Or--perhaps the same thing--check out the Center's site. . . I mean, if you didn't know any better, you could think these were admirable people pursuing a noble cause.


Indeed, the executives running the highly profitable Ringling Bros business are nothing if not shrewd. If I had more space here, I'd get into all the fascinating instances of espionage commissioned by Ringling Bros. owner Kenneth Feld (one of the world's richest men) against animal rights groups as well as journalists and other writers who've penned unflattering things about him or his circus. So if something bad should happen to me...


But a more immediate, pertinent example of the slick thinking of Feld and his fellow Ringling panjandrums is the circus' Animal Open House. Basically a clever twist on the ol' "The Best Defense Is An Aggressive Offense," the Open House is surely a pre-emptive strike against the countless people who think the treatment of circus animals is atrocious.


The Open House enables ticket holders who arrive 90 minutes before the show to "go behind the scenes to see how the animals live." Needless to say, perhaps, the Ringling juggernaut puts its best foot forward here. There not only is no dramatic mistreatment or abuse on display, but once again, if you didn't know any better, you could be excused for thinking this is a pretty decent set-up for these animals.


Indeed, as one measure of the Ringling wiles, during Open House the elephants are unchained and pretty accessible as they casually graze. Of course, after they "perform"--and long after the Open House is closed and the audience members have taken their seats in The Pond--the elephants, sporting their spiffy show headgear, were led to a different holding area with a red-and-white striped canvas wall and then they were chained--one front foot and one back foot for each elephant.


Worse, one of these anchored animals was relentlessly swaying, an overt indication that a captive elephant is extremely distressed. It's weeks later as I write this, and I'm still haunted by the image of that elephant swaying.


But that haunting image may be instructive. The life of circus animals is so deeply and broadly miserable that even when Ringling is openly displaying their animals and the treatment they're given (it's very different behind closed doors, as the lawsuit suggests), there are still multiple observable instances of the animals' mistreatment or troubling conditions:


An elephant swaying. A tiger confined to a ridiculously small cage. Even something as relatively innocuous as leading the zebras from their caged enclosure to the Pond's backstage entrance: it was a blazing hot July day in Anaheim--don't you think walking on a long stretch of black asphalt would be painful for the zebras and other animals? Would you want to make that walk in bare feet?


At these circuses that use animals, the poor treatment is so pervasive, so systemic, that the people in charge don't even recognize (or care about?) the smaller transgressions. And, realistically, to affect any meaningful change in this world will require major steps with major impact, like the ASPCA lawsuit or lobbying for tough new legislation.


Meanwhile, don't give these circuses money, don't attend their shows, don't support a business that routinely consigns animals to a life of pain and indignity.


Please.

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