On Sunday, the elephants of Ringling Bros. will perform for the last time at shows in Providence, R.I. and Wilkes Barre, Penn., signaling a turning point in the history of our society’s tolerance of wild animal acts.
When Ringling announced its decision last year to end its traveling elephant acts, I called it a “Berlin Wall moment.” Ringling had long fought changes in its business model, and its decision to reverse course signaled that even one of the most hardened, stubborn animal-use companies recognized the world is changing and saw that it needed to adapt. In just the year since, we have seen a tidal wave of animal welfare announcements from major brands that relied or rely on animal use, including dozens of announcements by food industry players to phase out battery cages and gestation crates from their supply chains. Last month, SeaWorld announced the end of its orca breeding program, and Ringling declared it would retire the elephants almost two years ahead of schedule.
Elephants – and other wild animals – do not belong in circuses. They lead lives of quiet desperation, languishing in confinement and denied the stimulation and social relationships they’d experience in the wild. Training typically involves heavy doses of punishment, with animals shackled or kept in cages, and forced to endure months of grueling travel, all so they can perform silly tricks in city after city, night after night. Elephants live in fear of the bullhooks wielded by animal trainers – part of the back story that makes the use of elephants in circuses so objectionable.
With Ringling closing out its involvement with this kind of enterprise, there are new political opportunities to change state and local laws to ban bullhooks and the use of wild animal acts, and to ensure that these outdated spectacles are a thing of the past. So far, more than 50 U.S. municipalities have passed legislation that prohibits the use of bullhooks on elephants and/or the use of wild animals in public displays altogether (most recently, bans have been put in place in Austin, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Missoula, Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, and Spokane). Two bills now pending before the Rhode Island Legislature would phase out the use of bullhooks on elephants. Many other states are considering similar measures, including California, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Other circuses see the writing on the wall. The Melha Shrine in Springfield, Mass., announced that this year’s circus will not feature any animals and instead will focus only on thrilling human performances. And the Wawa Shrine in Saskatchewan, Canada, has eliminated exotic animal acts from its show, with the provincial circus event chairman stating, “Our moral compass doesn’t point us in that direction anymore.” Garden Bros. Circus announced that 2016 is the final year that it will tour with elephants. However, there are still over a dozen circuses that continue to use elephants in their shows, so there’s more work to be done there, and there remain ongoing concerns about the facility that will house Ringling’s elephants. We hope that Ringling will do the right thing and retire these majestic animals to a sanctuary.
But for now, with the change in policy, and so many other indicators of change in the use of animals in live entertainment, let’s celebrate that we are starting a new era – one that should lead ultimately to an end of these bizarre wild animal acts.
P.S. The fight for wild elephants is also more important than ever. In a strong warning to elephant poachers, Kenya will this Saturday conduct the largest ivory burn to date, sending 105 tons of ivory up in flames. Many heads of state and international dignitaries, including U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, will be present. Poachers kill an elephant every 15 minutes for black-market ivory, sometimes even sawing off the tusks while the animal is still alive. One of the many benefits that will come with the end of elephant performances at the circus is that we can devote more energy and resources to protecting elephants in the wild.