Barnum and Bailey got rid of elephants: What’s next?

The first circus I ever saw live was Cirque du Soleil. Like the rest of the audience, I was wide-eyed and fascinated as I slipped into the realms of another world, but I also noticed something: There were no animals. According to pop culture, there were supposed to be animals in the circus ring — elephants waving their trunks, lion tamers, trick riders. I didn’t feel disappointed, exactly, because the stunning performance made up for it, but as a little kid seeing the circus for the first time, I felt a little thrown.

As I grew older, I learned a lot more about the use of performing animals, and the cruelty that circus animals are subjected to. They tour the country with extremely demanding schedules, often including multiple shows per day, living in crowded quarters with limited opportunities to stretch their legs and engage in natural behaviours. They’re also trained extremely abusively with the goal of terrorising them into performing perfectly on cue in the ring, whether it’s jumping through hoops or balancing balls on their noses.

Even the appearance of risk in the ring — the lion tamer’s chair, say — is carefully cultivated. Circus animals are kept in an extreme state of subjugation. Which is why Barnum and Baileys’ decision to finally retire their circus elephants was such a victory. Pachyderms are kind of an emblem of the circus in a lot of ways — if you think about the pop culture vision of a circus in your head, chances are that an elephant is going to pop into your mind. The company claimed any number of excuses for retiring their elephants, but between public pressure and a growing number of municipal laws restricting the use of circus animals, it just wasn’t feasible to keep using elephants for entertainment.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that they can’t use other performing animals, which is exactly what they’re doing. Visitors to Barnum and Baileys performances can still see a range of other animals, including exotics. The decision to attend circus performances with animals is a personal one, and some people may be unaware of the animal abuse that goes beyond behind the scenes and too enticed by the allure of the circus, but it’s time for this ancient tradition to end. Changing times often mean an end to old ways of life, and the way of life that uses animals for entertainment is one that should be over.

Regardless as to how one feels personally about questions like whether animals have souls, we certainly have evidence to demonstrate that they are self-aware. They clearly have feelings, and aside from that, are also subject to the same reactions to pain that humans have. Being whipped hurts, whether you’re a tiger or a person. The repeated use of pain to reinforce a desired behaviour or to extinguish an undesirable behaviour is clearly abusive. There’s nothing that justifies the mistreatment of circus animals in the name of a good time for audiences, no matter how those audiences feel about animals as a general rule.

Organizations with a vested interest in retaining the use of animals for entertainment spin a lovely pack of lies about how their animals are treated and the benefits they can access. The fact of the matter is, though, that it’s not normal for tigers to spend their lives in a circus ring, for horses to be trapped in stalls for the majority of their lives, for any number of other species to be kept in the conditions experienced by circus animals. Some handlers may genuinely feel affection for their charges, but they’re working within a broken and troubling system.

As Cirque has demonstrated, it’s possible to have absolutely stunning and beautiful circus performances without the use of animals. It’s known across the world for its amazing shows and usually has multiple tours going on at any given time. That would suggest that there’s a big market for Cirque’s work, and some of that market comes from people who would prefer to see an animal-free circus.

Cirque has found a way to reach for that fine balance between tapping into circus tradition and rejecting animal cruelty. The circus is an ancient and wonderful art, and many people are born intergenerationally into the world of the circus. Retaining the arts that people have developed — to awe audiences on trapezes, silks, through dance, is a critical part of our cultural heritage. We definitely should be working to ensure that the beautiful part of the circus isn’t lost, that future generations will be able to enjoy acrobats and tumblers and laugh at clowns.

But there’s no reason to insist that animal cruelty should be preserved alongside other circus traditions. There’s a compelling argument to retire circus animals, just as there’s an argument to abolish roadside zoos, and private keeping of exotic animals, and zoos in general. We can, and should, do better than this. Animals can’t choose how they live their lives, whether they’re carefully bred on farms that cater for circuses or picked up at auction or caught in the wild. It’s up to us to protect their interests, to speak, as Cleveland Amory put it, for those who can’t. I like to think that future generations will look back on this era in deep confusion, wondering how and why we ever used animals in entertainment — and that this will be the last century in which animals take to the ring.

Image: Giffords Circus, Sue Kellerman, Flickr