By Lori DuVall
The circus won’t be coming to town. At least, not the anachronism known as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, aka “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Is the final folding of the circus tent something to mourn? Is the disappearance of this 146-year-old tradition from the American landscape a true loss?
Not in my opinion. If anything it is a heartening sign, in an often angry and divided time, of our shared humanity. According to Kenneth Feld, head of the circus, it was the loss of the elephants that was the final blow. Once the Greatest Show on Earth could no longer include the greatest land animal, it was doomed, he claimed.
I believe there’s more to it than that, but it is a major factor. It’s one that came about because society began to recognize that forcing elephants and other wild animals to live a performing life was cruel and inhumane.
Full disclosure: I volunteer for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a home for retired zoo and circus elephants. I’m referred to as “the elephant lady” by the students and teachers whose classrooms I visit. I’ve been to the South African bush and seen these magnificent creatures in their natural habitats. The comparison to a life lived in captivity, which never sat well with me, became even more pronounced and unpalatable after seeing what an elephant’s life is supposed to be.
Elephants in the wild walk 20 or more miles daily in search of food and water. They live in herds with complex social structures and a matriarch in charge. The life span of an elephant mirrors that of a human, living 60 to 80 years. Males leave the herd in their teenage years and take up with older bulls, who serve as role models and teach the youngsters how to live alone in the wild. For the females, family is everything.
Extraordinarily intelligent, able to communicate through vocalizations and infrasound, and capable of great emotion, the elephant is a wondrous creature. To see one in a tutu, balancing on tiny stools and doing tricks for a human audience, is an abomination.
Along with a limited amount of mobility, these performances damage an elephant physically, leading to suffering and shortened life spans under the guise of entertainment.
Grass-roots organizations began a campaign against the bull hook, the instrument used to train and control the elephant. It looks like a fireplace poker with a hook. This is used to prod, lead or strike a recalcitrant elephant.
It’s not hard to find video of elephants being beaten with bull hooks, and once municipalities began to ban their use, the circus was unable to perform in those locations. As the number of cities rose, the circus could not keep its performance schedule and retired its elephants. Without the elephants, the circus was forced to fold its tent.
I’m glad to see this, though I acknowledge there is a human cost for the people losing their jobs. That’s the way of the world now, though. Industries that once boomed (newspapers, anyone?) become extinct.
Certainly entertainment is no justification for cruelty (whether intended or not), and it’s been very heartening to see the public support the endeavors of animal welfare organizations. It’s not just the elephants, it’s for the big cats and all the other animals, too.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “the greatness of a nation … can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I’m glad to see we are moving forward on that front. Or, as my mentor at the Elephant Sanctuary said when posting the circus announcement: “The times, they are a changing.”