Ringling Brothers Circus closing is a blessing for all God’s creatures

This is a win for the movement toward becoming a society that values and respects life of all forms, no matter how defenseless or show-worthy it may be.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance in Washington, DC on March 2015. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP Photo

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is officially closing for good in May after 146 years, and without question this is (partly) sad news for our nostalgia, a part of our nation’s history, and sense of wonder that the Big Top brought to all our lives, as well as for the many talented performers who delighted so many lives, both young and old. But the humanitarians in us have to admit it’s also a relief. While we all remember the acrobats and the flame eaters, it’s the wild animal acts—the hoop-jumping lions, balletic horses, and dancing elephants—that we’ll always remember the most. The elephant act was always the most anticipated part of the show, but pressure from animal activists in recent years forced the circus to drop it’s elephant attractions a few years ago. Ever since then, ticket sales have dropped and the company who owns the circus can’t make the business sustainable any longer. You don’t have to be an animal rights activist to admit that this was the right move. No matter what the cultural norms were 100 years ago, today it’s just not acceptable (or right) to keep wild animals caged, carted around the country on tour, and subjected to perform in such unnatural (and in some cases, harmful ways) no matter how well they were supposedly cared for.

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Elephants in particular. As the largest of all land mammals, elephants are created for freedom in the wild where they typically roam up to 40 miles a day. Circus elephants, however, spend 96 percent of their lives chained up or in cages, traveling 11 months a year in small, cramped boxcars. This lifestyle contributes to a host of painful health conditions for them including sores from rubbing against cage bars, arthritis, and even tuberculosis. Training for performances is no picnic, either, as they are frequently struck with “bullhooks,” sharp metal hooks attached to broomsticks, as discipline.

Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth poster, c. 1899. Wikipedia
Elephants’ jockeys mount. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, c.1943. Charles W. Cushman Collection Indiana University, Bloomington. University Archives.
Line of elephants of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, c.1946. Charles W. Cushman Collection Indiana University, Bloomington. University Archives.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 2011. Anjanettew | Flickr

 

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While it may be entertaining to some to witness such an enormous animal balancing on a tiny barrel or doing a handstand, entertainment of any kind that subjects a living creature to abuse is unethical. To echo Pope Francis’s own sentiments in his Encyclical on the Environment, our mistreatment of or lack of concern for animals eventually affects how we relate to one another. Inflicting pain upon another person, whether emotional or physical, for the simple sake of amusing ourselves is wrong. All animals, particularly elephants with their high degree of emotional intelligence, should similarly be spared from needlessly cruel treatment.

In a press conference announcing the closure, Kenneth Feld, CEO of the company that owns Ringling Bros, said, “This is not a win for animal rights activists. This is not a win for anyone.”

This isn’t about winning or losing in the way he means, though. There shouldn’t be a side to take here. It’s about animals that will be spared a life of confinement and, in some cases, mistreatment. But it is a win for all of us in the movement toward becoming a society that values and respects life of all forms, no matter how defenseless or show-worthy it may be.

 

Elizabeth Pardi
Elizabeth Pardi
Elizabeth Pardi is a New York-born, Virginia-raised, Ohio-dwelling freelancer. She spends her days laughing, learning and running her way through life with her superstar spouse and their charmingly passionate one-year-old.

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