Ken Dixon: Saving the circus from extinction


Published 4:26 pm, Saturday, March 7, 2015
Originally published on the CTPost website. 


We’ll have Jumbo forever.

And now, finally, the poor circus elephants may live out the rest of their years with a modicum of dignity, away from abuse and the roar of the crowds.

All the 43 pachyderms have to do is survive three more years of slavery at the hands of the trainers with Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus.

I confess to ambivalence about the years of protests and arrests of animal-rights activists. They were news events, for sure, when they picketed the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, the XL Center in Hartford.

Maybe it was the lingering seventh-grader in me, recalling the late night in 1966 or 1967 that my father took me to the old Madison Square Garden for an intergenerational experience. Alas, the only thing I remember from that night is the usher, pretending to wipe off the seats while readying for a tip, announcing to my father that from our perch he could see the showgirls quite well.

I figured that without explicit prohibitions, circuses would not give up the huge, graceful beasts, the highlight of every parade as the circus barnstorms across the country.

I’d seen the bull hooks, the smuggled videos. I respected the intelligent people who rise up and meet the circus everywhere to argue truth to corporate speak over an exhibition that dates back to when whales were killed for lantern oil and their bones for corsets.

But it was the circus, a tradition directly connected to the country’s agrarian roots. You know: Toby Tyler running off to join the circus; the Flying Wallendas; the lion tamer putting his head in the feline’s gaping maw; the clowns tumbling out of the little car like members of the Connecticut House of Representatives filing in for a vote.

Standing tall above it, still, is P.T. Barnum, the master huckster, the epitome of the word “legend,” the former Bridgeport mayor whose resting place is just a few feet from General Tom Thumb, his greatest human exhibition, in the city’s Mountain Grove Cemetery. Barnum exhibited animals, hoaxes, humbugs and when people lingered too long in his American Museum in New York, he put up the sign that said “This way to the Egress” and the next thing the visitors knew, they were through the exit and back out on the street.

Dead since 1891, Barnum remains a palpable presence in Bridgeport.

We still have his myths and memories at the Main Street museum dedicated to him. There’s the annual Barnum Festival, for Pete’s sake. There’s the statue in downtown Bethel, where he was born July 5, 1810.

Jumbo, however, was Jumbo, the elephant slave, captured in Africa at two years of age during the American Civil War, sold and displayed in German and Parisian zoos before making it to London, where visitors rode on him, before Phineas Taylor Barnum bought him for a whopping $10,000. He was killed in a Canadian railroad crash in 1885, but as recently as 1993 Jumbo’s bones were displayed at the American Museum of Natural History.

A few years back, when the Legislature was contemplating a ban on pachyderms, Feld Entertainment promised that Ringling Brothers would boycott Connecticut venues in Hartford and Bridgeport.

But it’s the 21st century now and it seems the grassroots demonstrations have taken hold. Anyone can see the big beasts on Animal Planet documentaries mourning for their dead; frolicking in their matriarchal family units; getting pushed to the limits of extinction by encroaching human habitat in Asia and by the insidious ivory trade in Africa.

Priscilla Feral, president of the Darien-based Friends of Animals, says it was a long time coming, but Kenneth Feld is phasing out the use of the beasts to keep his business alive.

“Over a period of years they had been agitated by demonstrations and crowds that wouldn’t buy their tickets over the mistreatment of elephants in particular,” Feral said.

“The circus is crude in a 1950s way and Feld never really updated what they did,” she said. “He didn’t get progressive with more human performers. I think he feels the future is a slippery slope for him if he doesn’t stop using the animals as entertainment. He also doesn’t need three years to complete this.”

Feral said there was more good news recently when the Chinese government announced a one-year moratorium on the importation of carved ivory. It still won’t halt the flow of poached elephant tusks. It won’t even save the use of other animals in the circus from captivity and the abuse of training for our amusement. But it’s a start, she said.

“If you can kill the ivory market you can save the animal,” she said. “Change is even happening there. I see this all with optimism that the world is ready to save this animal from extinction and in Feld’s case grotesque exploitation.”

Kenneth Feld, the corporate face of an entertainment facing market forces, has finally found the egress that might keep Ringling Brothers on the road for another hundred years.

Ken Dixon’s Capitol View appears Sundays in the Hearst Connecticut Newspapers. You may reach him in the Capitol at 860-549-4670 or via e-mail at