The stunning announcement this week from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — that it will drop elephants entirely from its traveling show — is terrific news for a majestic species of animal. It’s also a triumph of public awareness.
As Ringling’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, tacitly acknowledged this week, public pressure against the use of elephants in circus shows has been mounting for years. Some stems from a growing scientific awareness of elephants’ intelligence and social nature. Some comes from the work of animal-rights activists, who have confronted circus audiences with shocking evidence of elephant mistreatment. That, in turn, has decreased demand for circus tickets and increased pressure to regulate, or outright ban, the cruellest training practices.
For years, Feld Entertainment tried to fight that pressure with a public relations effort of its own, promoting a 200-acre “Center for Elephant Conservation” in Florida, where about 40 elephants now live, and the 13 elephants now traveling in Ringling’s show will eventually retire.
But evidence of cruelty has overwhelmed that gloss. In 2009, a former Ringling’s animal trainer — moved on his deathbed to act — sent photos to the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They showed baby elephants yanked away from their mothers, elephants shackled in barns with all four legs spread and restrained, and the widespread use of bullhooks and electric prods to force the animals into submission. PETA circulated the photos widely and displayed them, poster-sized, outside of Ringling shows. Local activist groups joined the cause, and lobbied public officials. Last December, Oakland, Calif., joined several other cities, including Los Angeles, Palm Beach, and Miami Beach, in banning the use of bullhooks, the sharp-hooked tools that Ringling’s elephant trainers regularly use.
This became, in effect, a practical barrier to circus operations. Without bullhooks, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said, “the simple fact is they can’t control them. They’ve got massive, many-tonned, intelligent animals who don’t want to stand on their heads or hold each other’s tails when they walk somewhere.”
Ringling’s announcement is a start, but it isn’t fully satisfying. As Newkirk notes, Ringling hasn’t promised to end the use of elephants until 2018; if the practice is wrong, it should end now. And Ringling and other circuses shouldn’t stop with elephants. It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not necessary to conscript wild animals into the nomadic, confined circus life. Plenty of smaller circuses — including the popular Big Apple Circus that occupies City Hall Plaza each spring — have proven that audiences are duly entertained without elephants, tigers, or bears. Cirque du Soleil does hearty business with the exploits of consenting human beings. Standards of entertainment change. And, fortunately for elephants, public pressure works.