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The Cruelest Show(s) On Earth

November 2, 2011

There has been a growing awareness over the past decade that circuses do not treat animals well. But this Mother Jones takedown of Ringling Bros. (and its corporate owner, Feld Entertainment), and the sad, tortured life of its elephants, will still make your stomach turn.

Elephants, like the orcas I have been writing about (here, and here), are highly intelligent and social animals. It’s hard to see how the experience of captivity can be anything other than stressful, and, ultimately, cruel. Here’s what Mother Jones discovered:

Feld Entertainment portrays its population of some 50 endangered Asian elephants as “pampered performers” who “are trained through positive reinforcement, a system of repetition and reward that encourages an animal to show off its innate athletic abilities.” But a yearlong Mother Jones investigation shows that Ringling elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity. Barack, a calf born on the eve of the president’s inauguration, had to leave the tour in February for emergency treatment of herpes—the second time in a year. Since Kenny’s death, 3 more of the 23 baby elephants born in Ringling’s vaunted breeding program have died, all under disturbing circumstances that weren’t fully revealed to the public.

Despite years of denials, Kenneth Feld has now admitted under oath that his trainers routinely “correct” elephants by hitting them with bullhooks, whipping them, and on occasion using electric prods. He even admitted to witnessing it.

One key theme of the story, which echoes what goes on with regulation of the marine mammal industry, is the failure of the USDA to adequately oversee and enforce laws meant to protect animals. That sort of regulatory capture is depressingly common across many industries these days. But there is a simple solution that doesn’t rely on careerist, angling-for-a-high-paying-industry-job, bureaucrats: stop going to circuses and parks that use captive animals to entertain you. It’s your dollars that drive the profit. No dollars. No profit. No industry.

Here’s what you don’t see at the circus:

UPDATE: Well, this is interesting. A bill to ban the use of wild animals in circuses is being introduced in Congress:

The Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act (TEAPA) is a historic first for the U.S., and this Bill, which has attracted bipartisan support and been sponsored by Congressman Jim Moran (D-Va), aims to restrict the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses, effectively bringing to an end the random cruelty and neglect associated with circuses of this nature. It is the first bill to comprehensively tackle the use of all wild animals in US circuses ever to be launched in the U.S.

I guess Moran has never been to a marine park. In any case, there’s a long way from introduction to passage in both the House and Senate. Anyone betting this one will get through? Thought so. More here.

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