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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