By Kitty Block
After being shuttered for six years because of flagging ticket sales and financial troubles, a new kind of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will kick off a nationwide circus tour this month, this time without a single animal caged, held captive and forced to perform for public entertainment. We are celebrating that momentous change: The re-imagined circus show will feature clowns, acrobats and trapeze artists from around the world in daring high-wire acts, bicycle stunts and more.
This shift has personal meaning for me, as I will never forget my experience of Ringling when I was 7 years old. The night before my second-grade class took a field trip to see the “greatest show on earth,” I was so excited in anticipation of seeing the elephants and tigers that I could barely sleep. But the following day, when I saw these animals performing to awestruck, applauding crowds under the threat of whips and prods, I was struck by the harsh reality of their lives. It was the first time I realized there are things people accept and even enjoy that aren’t right.
That was more than 50 years ago. Ringling’s new non-animal show has been a long time coming, proving that the hardest, lasting fights for animals are not won overnight. It took years, but as public awareness campaigns have shined a spotlight on cruelty, more and more people are rejecting circuses that use animals in favor of other forms of family-friendly, more humane entertainment. Once people have seen images of captive elephants escaping from chains or gunned down in city streets, circus trainers being mauled by tigers in front of horrified spectators, and undercover investigations that revealed the tremendous behind-the-scenes cruelty endured by captive wild animals, it becomes impossible to view animal acts the same way.
Our 2017 undercover investigation of Ryan Easley’s ShowMe Tigers act exposed the violent training involved. Easley’s eight tigers were forced to perform for Carden Circus and Shrine circuses. Among other occurrences, our investigator recorded a practice session in which Easley whipped a traumatized tiger 31 times in less than two minutes because she refused to get off a pedestal. Kept exclusively in barren transport cages when not performing, Easley’s tigers ate, slept, paced, urinated and defecated in the approximately 13 square feet of floor space provided to each tiger.
Lawmakers have taken action to ban these archaic acts. Eight states and 177 other localities across 37 states have passed various restrictions on the use of wild animals in circuses and other traveling shows. The most recent law passed in Suffolk County, New York, in August prohibits traveling shows from using elephants, bears, big cats, primates, otters, sloths, kangaroos and sea lions, among other animals.
The industry has reacted to the changing entertainment landscape in various ways. Cirque du Soleil and other shows have emerged as wildly popular, avant-garde theatrical versions of the circus featuring highly skilled human performers. Some smaller circuses did away with wild animal acts and have continued to thrive. For example, Circus Vazquez, which previously used wild animals in its shows, boasts on its website that the “evolution of the circus” led to its move to go animal-free. In addition, the company developed a second animal-free circus that tours in the U.S.
Other circuses, unable or unwilling to change with the times, ultimately closed, including Ringling, an iconic circus that had operated for nearly 150 years. As it folded its tent in 2017, Ringling cited changing public sentiment as a primary factor in its decision. Obviously, the swelling number of ordinances in major cities that prohibited animal acts, and the negative publicity concerning animals’ mistreatment, powerfully shaped the outcome.
One thing is certain from our point of view: Ringling’s new show will be more dazzling, more satisfying and more successful without the whips and terrified animals. It’s simply in keeping with the more enlightened time in which we live.
But, while some in the industry have evolved, there are others, like Shriner circuses, Carden Circus, Loomis Bros. Circus and Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, that continue to use wild animals. At many county and state fairs and festivals, tigers, lions, bears and sea lions are still forced to perform circus tricks. Our Minnesota state director witnessed an act at the Carver County Fair featuring stressed tigers just weeks ago.
The exhibitors trailing at the end of the parade toward kinder and better entertainment—without animals—need to accept the basic premise that people don’t want to see animals bullied into performing tricks with bullhooks, whips and electric prods. For our part, we’re glad to be able to celebrate Ringling and other entertainment companies that have taken the beautiful step forward toward animal-free entertainment, something our movement has been pressing for at least a century. And we’re determined to keep informing the general public about humane entertainment choices and to keep up the fight to pass bans on the use of elephants, tigers, bears, primates and other animals used in traveling circuses until the show is finally over.
Follow Kitty Block @HSUSKittyBlock.