The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived in the Tampa Bay area on New Year's Day to prepare for a series of shows in St. Petersburg and Tampa. This year, it was met in both cities by demonstrators, myself included, who object to the treatment of the animals forced to perform for the circus.
Let's examine eight arguments made by those who defend circus animal acts.
1. "The animals are always treated humanely even during training and rehearsals."
Not according to Henry Ringling North, a previous owner of Ringling Brothers. He wrote in his book The Circus King, "It is not usually a pretty sight to see the big cats trained.... When he (the trainer) starts off, they are all chained to their pedestals and ropes are put around their necks to choke them down and make them obey. All sorts of other brutalities are used to force them to respect the trainer and learn their tricks. They work from fear."
Nick Connell, a reporter who traveled with Ringling Brothers, wrote about the training of the Antalek chimps: "I first witnessed the training of the chimps in the winter quarters in Venice, Fla. They were on a long multi-seated bicycle on which three of the large chimps rode as passengers while the largest, Louie, steered and pedaled. Louie had a hard time of it, spilling the ensemble repeatedly. And, repeatedly, he was struck with a sturdy club. The thumps could be heard outside the arena building, and the screams further than that."
In his eyewitness account of Ringling Brothers Circus, Edward Stewart, a representative of the Performing Animals Welfare Society, wrote, "The elephants were chained in filthy railroad cars for the entire day. All were chained to the floor by one back foot and one front foot. Many had chains around their necks which were connected to the wall.
"The temperature was near 90 to 100 degrees.... I observed trainers hitting elephants across the eyes, on the trunks and the legs. Six of 20 elephants had open wounds; many more were scarred. Often the elephants seem to be beaten for no reason at all."
Jean Goldenberg, a spokesperson for the Washington Humane Society wrote, "It is time the public saw the other side of the circus. It is only the fear of beatings, hook punctures, paw burnings and worse that produces much of the unnatural behavior seen in circus acts. If the public could see ... we think people would demand that animal acts be abolished. It's not worth a few moments of razzle-dazzle."
2. "The circus enables children to see wild animals."
Parents and teachers work very hard to develop in children a respect for all living things and for the complex web of life upon which we all depend. Circus animal acts teach the exact opposite lesson.
Impressionable children learn that it is perfectly all right to separate animals from their natural environment, to force them to live in chains and cages and to force them by means of bull hooks and whips to perform stupid, unnatural acts, day after day, in city after city, as long as someone can make money doing it. Is this really what we want children to see?
3. "Some of these animals would be poached if they were in the wild."
There is no question that poaching is a serious problem. Many groups are working very hard to protect animals in their natural environment or in wildlife sanctuaries, but let's not try to save animals by locking them in small metal cages or chaining them inside railroad cars.
The animal acts themselves may also contribute to the problem of saving exotic species according to Ron Kagan, general curator for the Dallas Zoo. He warns, "We strongly believe that animals should not be used in any way that is demeaning or degrading. Animals that are used to perform tricks or other unnatural acts contribute to perpetuating a mistaken and disrespectful attitude toward wildlife. Considering the rapid and devastating decline in natural habitats and animal diversity, these activities only further erode our efforts to reverse this trend."
4. "The circus is inspected by the government."
The problem here is that the inspections are infrequent and the standards are minimal. No federal law specifically protects animals from training techniques such as beatings, starvation or electric shock. Of course, it is also not illegal to take animals that would normally roam many miles each day with other members of their species and to isolate them in small cages or to chain them so they can barely move.
5. "The demonstrators should be helping people instead."
Many of us are involved in causes that help people and animals. We do not apologize for spending a few hours a year in an effort to make people aware of the dismal lives led by animals in the circus.
6. "Some circuses raise money for needy causes."
Yes, but you don't need animal acts. Many exciting circuses such as the Cirque de Soleil and the Pickle Family Circus dazzle audiences with human skill and imagination, not pathetic animal acts.
7. According to a handout distributed by Ringling Brothers, the demonstrators are "extremists (who) want to force their narrow doctrine on you and deny you the right to make your own decisions."
Nonsense. Everyone is free to judge each animal-related issue on its merits.
8. "The circus has always had animal acts. It's a tradition."
So was slavery. In fact, P.T. Barnum got his start in show business in 1835 by buying and exhibiting a slave, Joyce Heth, purported to be 161 years old. Dr. Albert Schweitzer taught us, "The thinking man must oppose all cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition or surrounded by a halo. We need a boundless ethic which will include the animals also."
Michael Furlong is a middle school teacher in the Pinellas County school system.