Circus Comes To Town, Elephants and All

Do Circuses Still Have Elephants?

Protester holding sign
A protester holds a sign with graphic images of baby elephants being tormented. Michelle A. Rivera

When Ringling Brothers announced their decision to stop using elephants, animal rights activists were tempted to check off that issue as accomplished, do a little happy dance (I do the Irish Jig, personally), then move on to the next atrocity. After all, if Ringling eliminated elephants, logic dictates other circuses should and would follow suit. Surely, the large purveyor of abusement wouldn’t have stopped using elephants for no good reason.

It was exposure and public outcry that pressured Ringling to make that momentous decision.

However, where most intelligent businesspeople learn from the mistakes of their peers; one archaic and dishonest company has decided to keep elephants enslaved in an apparent lack of business acumen and an abundance of stupidity. So when a collection of characters rolled into West Palm Beach with pantechnicons stuffed with elephants, South Florida animal rights activists had to take to the street to protest opening day of a spectacle called The Garden Brothers Circus; an outfit with a long and troubled history. The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida organized the demonstration.

Don Anthony, Arff’s Communications Director, explained why the protest was necessary: “This circus may have a new name but the people who own it have a long record of abuse and violations. They’ve been around for a long time doing this and this circus, like all circuses, “trains” their animals the same way they all do, with bull hooks, metal pipes with hooks on the end, with whips, with electric prods; the kind of thing that if you did it to your dog, you’d go to jail.

It’s abuse.”

The Florida legislature apparently agrees. Florida Statute 828.12 states, in part “…A person who unnecessarily overloads, overdrives, torments, [or] deprives [animals] of necessary sustenance, commits animal cruelty, a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable by a prison term of up to a year, or a fine of not more than $5,000, or both. …….A person who intentionally commits an act to any animal, or a person who owns or has the custody or control of any animal and fails to act, which results in the cruel death, or excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering, or causes the same to be done, commits aggravated animal cruelty, a felony of the third degree, punishable by  a prison term of up to five years or a fine of $10,000, or both, as provided in s. 775.082.

So why does the circus have immunity? Certainly, their highly publicized ill-treatment of animals falls under the legal definition of animal cruelty, especially the part about overload, overdrive, torment and repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering. Why do authorities turn a blind eye to the shady shenanigans of a Big Top?

Turns out, minimal standards apply to circus animals just like they do with agricultural animals. “You wouldn't believe what goes on behind closed doors,” says Anthony, “thank goodness there are organizations that have undercover videos so we can see how these animals are trained. Elephants, for example, are taken away from their mothers when they are very young, the baby elephants are tied up on all four legs by chains, the mothers are screaming, the babies are screaming. They beat them for weeks on end until they give up, until they submit. This is one of the few circuses that still incorporate elephants into their acts regardless of Ringling’s actions.”

But Ringling Brothers should’nt be held up as a role model. Their prima facie act of “kindness” was a façade. Anthony clarifies: “Ringling, trying to make themselves look altruistic, got rid of elephant acts in their circuses.

There are two problems with that. The first problem is that they are not going to a sanctuary. They’re going to be used for cancer research. Also, they are going to be used to breed more elephants to be sold to other circuses, even roadside circuses and zoos. The other problem is they still have all these other animals, other species that are living in cages that are being forced to perform. Any time you see an animal forced to perform, it’s not entertainment, it’s exploitation and abuse.”

The Mexican government agrees animals have no place in showbiz. In March of 2015, Mexico, a country not known for its animal welfare attitudes, introduced a ban on the use of not just elephants, but all live animals in circus acts despite the fact they still allow bullfighting and rodeos. The Mexican people think yawning through shows while elephants do stupid tricks and give rides is more repugnant than watching bulls stabbed to death and calves having their tiny bodies torn asunder.

Isn’t it time America caught up with our South of the Border amigos?

Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical Center, has done exhaustive research into the use of animals in circuses and allege mistreatment, abject cruelty, despicable living conditions and confinement. The truth behind the big top is of such great concern that a collection of organizations, including ARFF, Big Cat Rescue, HSUS, Peta and many others, are working together to pass federal protections for circus animals. The Federal Circus Bill is supported by 31 Democrats and one Republican, and would “amend the Animal Welfare Act to restrict the use of exotic and non-domesticated animals in traveling circuses and exhibitions.”

Enlightened people agree that elephants belong in the wild. Anyone who has watched Animal Planet or National Geographic knows that elephants are family oriented, intelligent and sensitive. No wonder there was such a public outcry against the use of elephants in circuses.

Another indicator that people no longer want torture with their cotton candy and peanuts is the wildly successful Cirque du Soleil. No animals in this “circus,” just talented human beings doing amazing and death-defying acts they love to do – no prodding, suffering or abuse necessary.

How can boring, old and tired animal tricks compete? The spectacular wizardry and enormous acrobatic talent in intergenerational shows such as “The Beatles Love,” “Criss Angell’s Mindfreak Live,” “Michael Jackson’s One,” “Toruk, The First Flight based on James Cameron’s Avatar” and a multitude of others offer art, music, literature, culture, education, enchantment and delightful fantasy for children of all ages unlike you’ll ever see at a circus. True raw passion is demonstrated succinctly in one show for mature audiences only. Zumanity is described on Cirque’s website as a seductive twist on reality, making the provocative playful and the forbidden electrifying. Now doesn’t that sound more memorable and sensational than watching elderly, abused and beaten-down animals?