Last night, Ringling Bros. marked the beginning of the end as one of its two touring shows folded up its tents for the final time. The company’s final show will be May 21st.
Ringling Bros. was not able to adapt quickly enough to the new, humane economy, and it made a decision to cut its losses and end the battle over the use of wild animals in the circus. It was the right move, and we applaud the company’s leadership for taking this difficult step.
Not two weeks ago, Los Angeles made a preliminary decision to end all wild animal acts in the city, and other cities are expected to follow. There were too many cultural and political cross-currents for Ringling to navigate, and while it may be bittersweet for some, it’s a welcome development for the animal protection movement. And it’s not just happening in the United States. Yesterday, the interior secretary for the outgoing presidential administration of France announced a phase-out of the use of cetaceans in marine parks and facilities.
The policies are coming fast and furious in a world where we now recognize that captive environments pose particular challenges for some species.
The HSUS and other animal protection organizations have long criticized wild animal use in circuses and marine parks, and, more recently, we have pointed circus lovers in the direction of Cirque du Soleil and other theatrical shows that keep animals out of the mix.
Late last week and into the weekend, the Detroit Zoo convened zoo industry and animal welfare leaders and probed the question of animal welfare. There is also a rising tide of concern within that industry for animal welfare, certainly among zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Zoo industry leaders are taking a more serious look at the behavioral and psychological health of animals on exhibition, and taking other steps for animal welfare, including by becoming advocates for animals on a larger scale. Some are pushing for a federal ban on the sale of shark fins and a ban on the breeding and private ownership of big cats for the pet trade.
When I was a kid, I had a searing experience going to the Central Park Zoo, where the overseers kept leopards, lions, and other wild animals in small concrete-and-steel enclosures. I was on a class trip, and I alternated between loud complaining and deep brooding, ruining the experience for everyone else on the sojourn. It was a jarring and appalling circumstance for animals.
Now, after decades of animal activism and thousands of big and small changes in the zoo profession, it’s an entirely different experience at accredited zoos. Accredited zoos are not free of their challenging issues, but many are striving to do better, and the Detroit Zoo is certainly a model of animal welfare blended with advocacy and animal welfare education.
At the same time there are still perhaps 2,000 substandard zoos in the country. Many are roadside menageries with no experienced staff or wildlife veterinarians. They are profit-making enterprises that take all sorts of shortcuts, with some of them even offering up baby tigers or bears for handling to customers who pay for the experience.
We look forward to working with AZA to expose these bad actors, to pass meaningful legislation to help all animals, to educate the public about the wide set of animal welfare issues, and to blow the lid off phony accreditation programs that have little meaning or value. For zoos operating under the old models and standards, there’s no escaping the cultural and policy shifts that are occurring.