Ernest Hemingway once said, “The circus is the only fun you can buy that is good for you.” The “you” to which Mr. Hemingway directed this statement was obviously not the animals put on display in the circus. For many of the animals used in the performances, the circus is neither fun nor good for them. Studies have shown, and testimony has proven, that many of the animals used in the entertainment industry, especially in the circus, are subjected to cruelty, abuse, and neglect—a high price to be paid for a few hours of entertainment. As this information reaches the public, circuses worldwide are being forced to eliminate acts and, in some cases, close their doors, as they face crushing market pressures, animal rights legislation, and lawsuits.
Most of the publicity has centered on the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Ringling Brothers began a travelling circus in 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin. In 1907, the Ringling Brothers acquired Barnum & Bailey Circus, merging the two in 1919 and promoting their show as the “Greatest Show on Earth.” In 1967, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey was purchased by the Feld family of Feld Entertainment, Inc., who operated the circus until its closing earlier this year.
For over 100 years, the Ringling Brothers Circus toured the world offering entertainment to audiences of all ages. The Circus started out with small acts such as skits and juggling routines but rapidly expanded to include trapeze artists, acrobats, tightrope walkers, contortionists, and, most notably, live animal performances. The first animals incorporated into the circus acts were horses, ponies, and bears, and by 1910, the Ringling Brothers Circus had “35 horses, 26 elephants, 16 camels and other assorted animals that traveled on 92 railcars.” In later years, the Ringling Brothers incorporated large cats (tigers and lions) into their shows. Above all, the elephants have been in the prime spotlight and their routines prominently featured in shows and advertising materials.
As the training and use of wild animals for entertainment increased, so did the concern for their welfare and treatment. “Legal efforts to stop Ringling Bros. from alleged mistreatment of animals began in 2000 when a group of animal welfare organizations, along with a former circus employee, brought suit against the circus and its parent company, Feld Entertainment Inc.” The suit alleged, “the methods used to train the circus’ Asian elephants were so cruel as to violate the Endangered Species Act,” which “prohibits ‘harming,’ ‘harassing,’ and ‘wounding’ animals belonging to the protected species.” The plaintiffs in the suit complained of “a pattern of objectionable treatment, including beating baby elephants, removing babies from their mothers, keeping elephants confined in chains for as many as 20 hours a day and causing pain with bull hooks as a training technique.” After over a decade of litigation, the plaintiffs ultimately lost the claim in federal court, “in part because the circus employee who was listed among the plaintiffs was being paid by the animal groups while also serving as a witness.”
Despite taking a loss in court, animal rights organizations still consider their efforts successful as the case brought wide attention to the issue of animal welfare in the entertainment industry.
Despite taking a loss in court, animal rights organizations still consider their efforts successful as the case brought wide attention to the issue of animal welfare in the entertainment industry. As Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, Inc., Kenneth Feld, put it, “we won in court — and obviously in the court of public opinion we didn’t prevail.” With big-name organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the Animal Welfare Institute, the United States Humane Society (USHS), and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), all having a dog in the fight, the end of the lawsuit did not mark the end of political, legal, and economic pressures facing the animal entertainment industry.
Additionally, through testimony that came out during the federal trial, details of mistreatment of circus animals grabbed the attention of media sources and activist groups. In fact, “in 2011, testimony from the unsuccessful litigation” was cited by PETA in a complaint “against the circus to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency charged with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.” As a result of that lawsuit, Feld Entertainment racked up a bill of $270,000 in fines to be paid to the USDA.
Social media has been a major driving force behind the success of animal rights groups. In 2009, PETA leaked videos of Ringling Brothers handlers beating elephants before entering the circus ring. The videos, taken by a man who went undercover posing as a stagehand, showed Ringling Brothers employees abusing elephants with chains, bull hooks, and electric prods, cursing at them, and crowding them into tight spaces. Within hours, the videos were posted and shared all over Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and had millions of views. The combination of these videos and the information learned through the lawsuits inspired activists worldwide to fight for the rights of the circus animals, especially the elephants, and in 2015, Ringling Brothers announced that elephants would no longer be a part of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
“[T]he evidence and testimony of animal cruelty that came out of the case…surely played a role in influencing the public’s entertainment purchasing decisions, including choosing to not buy tickets to the circus.”
Ringling Brothers held their final show on May 21, 2017 in Uniondale, New York. CEO Kenneth Feld attributed the closing to “high operating costs and the decline of ticket sales” which “made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.” As explained by the Animal Welfare Institute’s general counsel, Georgia Hancock, the economic impossibility of continuing the show can likely lend itself to “the evidence and testimony of animal cruelty that came out of the case” as it “surely played a role in influencing the public’s entertainment purchasing decisions, including choosing to not buy tickets to the circus.”
The Ringling Brothers Circus is not the only company in the animal entertainment industry facing pressures from activist organizations. For example, SeaWorld, a chain of amusement parks featuring several marine animals, announced in 2016 that it would stop breeding orca whales and would begin phasing out their iconic orca shows. This decision resulted from financial and societal pressures placed on SeaWorld following the release of the documentary Blackfish, which portrayed severe mistreatment of orca whales at SeaWorld.
Also, at the same time that Ringling Brothers closed their last show, “the Humane Society published an undercover video taken during a traveling circus act called ShowMe Tigers, featuring eight of the big cats…being lashed with whips, cringing, cowering and showing other signs of stress in response.” The filing of a complaint with the federal government for violations of the Animal Welfare Act soon followed.
[T]he growing success of animal rights activists, pro-animal rights changes to legislation, and suffocation of the animal entertainment industry all go to a larger-scale, more important change in thinking and ideals.”
As an additional victory for animal rights, there has been an influx of pro-animal legislation at both state and local levels. “In April, Los Angeles banned the use of wild animals in entertainment, including circuses, altogether.” Los Angeles is one of about 60 jurisdictions that have passed such a ban. At the federal level, the United States House of Representatives is considering a bipartisan bill, the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act, which would primarily ban circuses touring with wild animals.
Aside from the legal implications, the growing success of animal rights activists, pro-animal rights changes to legislation, and suffocation of the animal entertainment industry all go to a larger-scale, more important change in thinking and ideals. Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society said in an interview with NPR, “[W]e’re really seeing a rising tide of consciousness when it comes to the treatment of animals. … concern about animal welfare is now a value shared by all Americans.”