The Greatest Show on Earth? The Circus in Light of Proposed Legislation

Somehow I’m on a Ringling Bros e-mail list.

An Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) and baby a...
Image via Wikipedia

Today I got a link to their Ringling Bros Center for Elephant Conservation as part of their campaign against legislation that would effectively prohibit them and other circuses from using animals in their traveling shows.

Okay, so I kind of fibbed up there. I know how I’m on their list: we went to the circus a couple of years ago.

There, I admitted it. Now you’re going to take away my “crunchy” credentials, aren’t you? If it helps, we left early because it was too intense for my daughter.

Sitting under the Big Top is a treasured childhood memory (closely linked with the memory of eating cotton candy, which I love), but I’ve only been once in the past 20 years because I feel so conflicted about the circus. And now that I’ve been, I don’t plan on going back. My favorite acts are the “people” acts, and my concerns about the animals detract even from my enjoyment of seeing motorcycles racing around in a giant mesh sphere.

When I took my daughter and my husband a couple of years ago, we visited the animals before the show. They seemed, to my untrained eye, healthy and well treated. But they were standing on the paved parking lot with just a little straw under foot with hundreds of yokels (including me) gawking at them. It seemed undignified and very sad. And who knows what things are like when the crowds aren’t there.

I believe that endangered animals deserve to be in their natural habitats, not in captivity. But the reason they’re endangered is because of trouble in their natural habitat (toxins, overhunting, habitat loss, etc). It feels wrong to intervene in the lives of wild animals, but just by being here and acting like humans, we’re already intervening in their lives. It feels wrong not to intervene on their behalf after we’ve had such a negative effect on them.

If we humans want to help these species survive, it seems as though we need to protect and bring back their habitat at the same time we help them increase their numbers with breeding programs.

I think about the California condor and how it was on the brink of extinction due to DDT poisoning. The San Diego Zoo, among other entities, helped breed them in captivity while at the same time, legislative pressure brought about bans on DDT and the condor’s habitat was allowed to heal. Then the condors were released back into the wild. While they’re still endangered and their breeding success in the wild seems limited, their numbers are increasing in captivity. This is a species that could be extinct were it not for human intervention, but it remains to be seen if they can survive outside of captivity.

If the Ringling Bros Center for Elephant Conservation is, as they claim, “the most successful Asian elephant breeding program in the Western Hemisphere,” it seems like that’s a good thing, right?

Of course, that’s just one part of their business, and certainly not the most well-known part.

Condor chick being fed by condor feeding puppet
Image via Wikipedia

And of course, a big difference between Ringling Bros and the San Diego Zoo condor program is that the zoo’s purpose the entire time was returning the condors to the wild. They minimized human interaction to the point of using condor hand puppets to feed the chicks so they wouldn’t imprint on their human care providers. I’m not sure about the Center for Elephant Conservation, but not much of this seems to be going on in the traveling shows.

What do you think? What level of involvement should humans have in protecting other species? Is it appropriate to use animals for entertainment if it helps fund other “good” programs*? Is it ever appropriate to use animals for entertainment (like in zoo/aviary educational shows)? Do you believe that Ringling Bros is sincere about its conservation efforts, or is this just PR?

* So far I’ve found nothing on the Center for Elephant Conservation website indicating where their funding comes from, so this is just a hypothetical.

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8 Replies to “The Greatest Show on Earth? The Circus in Light of Proposed Legislation”

  1. Seeing animals up close has the potential to make people more aware of their awesomeness and inspire people to care about something that they may not be in touch with that is inside them. Perhaps. I see kids and adults think and feel in a way that a book cannot when they are exploring. And maybe being inspired to learn more or become more active for the animals.

    I think of this when we go to the zoo or aquarium and when we buy fish for our fish tanks. Are we helping or hurting the animals/fish and is there really an easy answer for all of this.


  2. I’m 1000% against animals in the circus. They have a history of abuse and it’s just not needed.
    I will sign the bill against them.
    I support a facility that educates the public and helps further the species that needs help in the wild or gives life to injured animals that can not go back into their natural habitat.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Heidi. Do you think there’s ever a place for using animals in entertainment? If the circuses stopped traveling and ensured that the animals, when not performing, were living awesome lives (not sure what this would look like…just hypothetical), would you feel differently about it? I suppose this would be something like the Sea World model that Melanie mentions in her comment. Clearly, given the handful of fatal attacks by orcas in captivity over the years, this model has its flaws, too, but do the benefits outweigh the risks if it’s helping to educate and inform the public about the need for conservation efforts and to potentially raise funds for conservation efforts? (If, in fact, a whale show does that, something I’m not sure about.)


      1. I don’t think sea world is necessarily raising a level of consciousness. I don’t look at them as a sanctuary by any means but I’ve never been and probably wouldn’t support if the opportunity arose.
        I don’t care WHAT the circus is doing to the animals they keep (even if it’s spa treatments) I will NEVER support them and the animals they keep.
        It makes me think though…I’ve been to the Shed Aquarium in Chicago many times and have seen Belugas nursing (amazing!) and feel they have an acquitted facility for their animals and don’t just use them for ‘shows’. It’s a fine line though but much thicker than the circus.
        I’m sure PETA has some MAJOR footage on the circus and I’ve seen blips of it somewhere at some point. Not good.
        I even rode elephants when we went to Thailand and I didn’t know what we were getting into and I will NEVER do that again either. They had a few tied up and they were swaying and not acting normal in my opinion and I was completely turned off by that and the way they have to jab them in the back of the ear to make them take you on a walk.


  3. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I used to work for the National Zoo in the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program which was returning GLTs to the wild. At the time they had a very successful reintroduction program. There were more GLTs born than there were released ones, I believe. GLTs are small monkeys, though, and they live in groups in smaller areas and reproduce much more quickly than elephants. What I’m trying to say is that it seems unlikely to me that they are actually raising elephants that are able to survive in the wild and also that there is probably not enough wild to release them into.

    However, there is a need for the animals in captivity to be managed. I know that elephants in zoos are part of a species survival plan, which means that there is a scientist somewhere looking at the diversity of the population and suggesting elephant pairs that will maintain a healthy population (by which I mean, not inbred). If Ringling Brothers is part of that plan, that is a good thing.

    All of that said, I’m not sure elephants in zoos (or in the circus) ever have enough space since elephants seem to need vast quantities of space. And I am also not sure that there will ever be enough human change to give the elephants back the space they need in their native habitat. The question then becomes whether it is more humane to just give up on a species. I’m not convinced that’s true either. It’s clearly a sticky question.


    1. I knew that you worked at the zoo, but I didn’t know the specifics. I was hoping you’d comment because I don’t hear much in these discussions from scientists (just from animal rights activists and from those trying to make a profit, both of whom have a particular ax to grind).

      While writing this post, I read some more recent information about the attempts to reintroduce condors into the wild, and it struck me just how difficult it is without HUGE changes on the part of humans (like, giving up large tracts of valuable real estate in Southern California). So much has already been lost, habitat-wise that the successes they’re seeing in the condor program seem very modest and might not ever create a sustainable wild population. It’s a frustrating situation all around.


  4. Really liked this post. I went to Sea World a few years ago with my in-laws, and had such a weird experience. They had to postpone the whale show because the head female whale was upset about something, and so none of the other whales would cooperate; whales are very sensitive animals and, well, “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” So we sat there while they were trying to get the whales calmed down, and after a while of watching this whale circle the pool, I just felt so selfish for being there. This whale was obviously upset, like, I could almost FEEL how upset it was. And there we all were, I mean, there were people COMPLAINING about it taking too long, like these were puppets, not living beings who had minds and spirits. But at that time, I felt such a strong connection to the animals in the tank, and that’s never happened before or since to me, but it was so strong, it actually brought tears to my eyes.

    Now, I loved seeing animals close up, especially the whales, I think they are amazing creatures. But it seems so selfish to have them perform, or to have them live in closed quarters like that just to satisfy my desire to see them close. There are other ways for people, who truly desire to help the animals, raise awareness and money and still “entertain” people. It seems just as bad as slavery for us to make them perform. “Well, they like to perform, it’s good for them, it gives them something to do,” seems a bit lame. “We’ll let you survive if you give us a good show.” It might sound very cynical of me, but I think part of why the circus has the elephant conservation thing is just so they receive less criticism. I think there ARE people there, just like at Sea World, who truly love the animals and want the best for them, but in the end, with the powers that be, it’s all about the same thing everything else is about–MONEY.


    1. Your comments about connecting with the animals really struck me. A baby elephant was born at our local zoo the day before my son was born. When he was a couple of weeks old, we went to the zoo (just him and me) and sat and nursed while baby Zuri nursed in the enclosure with her mom. I had this upswell of emotion at our (mine and this mother elephant’s) connection as mammals and as mothers. I still think of her as a kind of mothering peer, in an odd, unequal way. I feel a very strong connection with elephants and have such mixed feelings about seeing them in person since I know they are often not cared for well enough in captivity despite their keepers’ best efforts simply because they’re the largest land animal and can’t be confined to small quarters without consequences.

      Back in Salt Lake City, we lived just a block and half from Tracy Aviary, the oldest continually operational aviary in the country. They had bird shows, but they were clearly for education and if a bird didn’t “cooperate,” they’d simply end the show, if necessary. They also only kept birds that were injured and could not survive in the wild, which helped me feel better. Plus, it’s just an awesome aviary.


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