For many cities and towns across our country the circus is a tradition of the holiday season. Revelations about behind the scenes practices of the circus raises serious questions about an event that many Americans regard as a holiday tradition.
For the most part, the circus is a wonderful event. The clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists and other talented performers provide terrific entertainment. There is, however, a dark side to traditional circuses that the industry keeps far from the glare of the bright lights of the big top. The “tricks” that wild animals are forced to perform is contrary to their nature and the training methods that utilize violence, fear, and intimidation inflict great pain, suffering, injury and sometimes death.
One of the featured events of many circuses is a tiger jumping through a ring of fire. This makes one wonder, why would a tiger, that is terrified of fire, do this death-defying trick? A similar question is raised with respect to an elephant performing a headstand, which is stressful, painful and dangerous. The answer lies in the fact that these animals have learned a fear greater than that of the acts they are forced to perform.
The circus industry would have the public believe that abuse is not used to train the wild animals that entertain their audiences. However, the tools of the trade used by trainers belie this claim. In the case of big cats, these tools typically include whips, tight collars and chains or wire tie-downs. In the case of elephants, they include bullhooks (A heavy metal poker with a sharp point-and-hook at one end. The point is for pushing; the hook, inserted in the mouth or at the top of the ear, is for pulling. Both are sharp enough to pierce elephant hide.), electro-shocking devices and whips that cause these highly social, emotionally sensitive and intelligent beings severe pain and instill great fear.
Joyce Poole PhD, a world-renowned expert in elephant behavior, reviewed undercover footage showing the treatment of elephants by circus employees. Dr. Poole observed: “The footage shows gratuitous violence against them – hitting, poking, jabbing, hooking elephants on the head, ears, trunk and limbs with bullhooks ... striking of elephants with bullhooks, whips and other objects keeps them in a constant state of fear and stress so that they will obey and perform on command...”.
Much of the brutal treatment is inflicted upon baby elephants and is designed to break their spirit at a time when they should still be with their mothers. This abuse cries out for an answer to the question: Does the use of wild animals as performers in circuses send a wrong message to children that cruelty to animals is acceptable? Human decency suggests that children, instead, be taught to extend their circle of compassion to include these remarkable beings and to appreciate their true nature.
Apart from cruel training practices, these animals are ill-suited for the rigors of performing in circuses, which requires extensive travelling in boxcars, trailers and trucks. While travelling, they may be forced to stand for days at a time, even in extremely hot and cold weather without climate control. When not travelling, big cats are subject to constant confinement in small cages and elephants are oftentimes kept shackled in chains, which severely restricts an its movements, eliminating its ability to lie down, walk, or socialize with other elephants.
A trend has emerged to ban or place restrictions on circuses that use wild animals for entertainment. More than a dozen countries have banned at least some wild animals from performing in public. In the U.S., more than fifty local governments have imposed either an outright ban on animal circuses or imposed restrictions on the use of pain inflicting implements such as bullhooks. L.A. can be added to that list, as its City Council recently voted to prohibit the use of bullhooks starting in 2017.
Another trend is the growing number of animal-free circuses, such as Cirque du Soleil, which feature exciting and innovative performers that dazzle audiences without animal acts. Cole Bros. held its show in Winchester, Virginia, without the use of animals, in order to comply with a recently enacted ban on exotic-animal exhibitions. In an interesting twist, Cole boasted its humans-only show as “just as dazzling and just as amazing”.
In the true spirit of the holidays, people of good will should refuse to patronize of an event that is inextricably linked with extreme inhumane treatment of animals and urge their government officials to ban any circus that uses wild animals as performers. The time is long past due to close the sad chapter for these magnificent creatures caught in the cycle of misery known as the circus. That would make for a most fitting holiday tribute for all to celebrate!
The writer is an attorney-at law. He devotes his retirement to animal welfare through advocacy. The mission of the writer’s website www.irafischer.com is: Kindness and Compassion for Animals. Ira is a proud supporter of Big Cat Rescue and is a member of its Legacy Society.