The demise of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
It’s been 25 years since Friends of Animals received a diary transcript from a young man who worked for many years as a crew member of a large travelling circus and printed it in Action Line. The diary was riddled with Animal Welfare Act violations—from depriving animals of food and water and elephants being badly beaten to injured animals being forced to perform.
“The people here have become so callous,” he wrote. “Animal abuse is a daily occurrence and no one think’s it’s unusual! They have come to accept the idea that the animals’ well-being is secondary to the performance. I’m sorry to leave. But I don’t want to become like them. So maybe the best thing I can do for these animals is to walk away now and tell my story.”
Lifting the veil on what’s wrong with imprisoning animals in circuses for entertainment so the public could become outraged by such exploitation was the best thing that young man could have done for those animals.
His actions were consistent with the fabric of Friends of Animals, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. We have never defined success simply by lawsuits won or lost. Success also comes in raising awareness, and not watering down principles, while inspiring social movements.
And nothing reflects FoA’s substance and ability to win the public on our view of a problem and solution than the demise of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which shuttered its doors in May, citing declining attendance, changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups as contributors to its termination. We are fortified by this victory, however, we know there’s more work to be done because there are still other circuses in business.
“We think this reflects a change in what people view as family entertainment,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “This change is one we had been fighting for for decades. It’s gratifying and proves once again public backlash matters.”
AN UPHILL BATTLE
In Connecticut, FoA had its work cut out for it over the last few decades in terms of putting Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus out of business, as one of its co-founders, P.T. Barnum, was born in Bethel, Conn. and later made nearby Bridgeport his home. He donated land for city parks, served as mayor and even sheltered the animals there in the winter. Just a short drive from FoA’s headquarters in Darien, the P.T. Barnum Museum still pays homage to the man it claims created the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
The museum’s executive director even mourned the announcement that the Ringling Bros. would close its tent doors for good in May 2017 in a blog post: “No matter what year or moment in time, the nature of humankind is to be curious, explore, learn and advance our lives. We all pursue joy and well-being for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, and we know that it is our divine right to be happy. P.T Barnum acknowledged ‘happiness’ as his sole purpose and even said, ‘The noblest art is that of making others happy.’”
FoA sees nothing noble in making human animals happy if doing so means exploiting non-human animals and causing them to suffer. That’s why every time Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to Bridgeport, our members and supporters peacefully protested (similar efforts were duplicated in other states as well.)
Members and supporters were armed with signs and our “Ringling and Reality” brochures, which dispelled all the myths the Ringling Bros.’ marketing team perpetuated, like trainers and animals have a wonderful relationship, tricks are based on natural behaviors and the captive breeding program is essential to the survival of the Asian elephant species.
One FoA staff member recalled that there was no escaping the organization’s signs and messages. People always stopped to read them and asked for information. Using a megaphone, FoA pointed out the inaccuracies of everything the circus program sellers shouted out to the public.
Staff and supporters were bolstered by hearing things like “I hadn’t thought of it that way”; “I didn’t know”; and “I won’t come back next year.” FoA also took out ads in newspapers depicting elephants exploited by the “Saddest Show on Earth.”
And beyond protests and leafleting, FoA encouraged the public to boycott sponsors of the circus and asked charitable organizations not to back the circus with fundraisers. In Bridgeport, FoA even took the Board of Education to task for letting Ringling Bros. make the circus part of the school district’s curriculum.
OUR WORK MUST GO ON
Circuses such as the Garden Bros., Universoul and Shrine, as well as many others, continue to do business and deny wild animals the ability to express their natural behaviors such as having extended social groups and living on large territories.
Like Ringling Bros., the remaining circus environments cannot provide for normal social groupings, which includes things like young elephants not leaving their mothers’ side for eight years, and the presence of male elephants, who are too dangerous to use in circuses.
And animals in the remaining circuses still perform through various forms of coercion. No free-living animal performs such choreographed stunts for human onlookers naturally. From tigers jumping through flaming hoops to elephants dressed up like Vegas dancers, animals caught or purposely bred for circuses live highly unnatural scenarios rather than the lives of freedom they ought to be leading.
Some circuses greenwash what they do by claiming to breed endangered species. Generally, they ignore the key point of animal rights: Life matters, but freedom matters just as much. The good news is that cities and towns like Stamford, Conn.; San Francisco; West Hollywood; Ketchum, Idaho; Quincy, Mass., Greenburgh, N.Y., and Plattsburgh, N.Y., as well as several others, have taken matters into their own hands by passing ordinances prohibiting the use of wild and exotic animals in traveling shows and circuses.
In the media last year, Plattsburgh, N.Y., city council members credited FoA’s anti-circus demonstrations and education for playing a role in their decision to pass a resolution banning the use of city facilities for captive-animal performances. New York City is currently considering a ban, and FoA testified at a public hearing in October 2016 in support of the legislation.
What truly uplifted FoA was listening to youngsters testifying that they don’t want to see wild animals in circuses. Six-yearold Charlotte Moore told legislators that some animals just don’t belong in circuses. “I really want to get rid of them,” she said. “They treat them badly and they have to be without their families.”
And most recently New York City banned all live animals in circuses, New York State banned elephants and Delaware, Ohio, banned wild and exotic animals in circuses because of public backlash. A local resident and a group of likeminded friends gathered more than 1,000 petition signatures opposing the Florida-based Circus Pages Circus from coming to town and presented them to the Delaware City Council.
“This was really driven by the people coming to council,” Darren Shulman, the city’s law director, told the media. “I also think it’s a little bit of an end of an era and people thinking differently about animals.” And that has been Friends of Animals’ goal all along—for people to no longer tolerate or consider acceptable the purposeless exploitation of animals for amusement. If the show must go on, let it do so with human animal performers who are willing participants. Goodbye and good riddance, Ringling Bros.