Why All of America's Circus Animals Could Soon be Free

May 22, 2017, 04:00 PM

National Geographic.

The curtain is about to fall for the last time on the self-dubbed “Greatest Show on Earth,” America’s biggest and longest-running traveling circus. On Sunday, after 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus pumped its caravan brakes permanently. Other traveling circuses may not be far behind.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have joined forces on a bill that would ban the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses and any other entertainment act on wheels. In late March, Representatives Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican, and 22 other lawmakers introduced the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act (TEAPSPA) in the House. It would require the 19 traveling circuses in the U.S. with performing animals to to use only human entertainers—or shut down.

If the bill passes, it will end life on the road for more than 200 big cats, bears, camels, and elephants still working as circus performers. Thirty-four other countries have instituted similar bans, as have dozens of cities and counties in the U.S., including Los Angeles and San Francisco

The welfare issues affecting wild circus animals are long documented and numerous. Animal welfare experts have found that it's grueling and stressful for animals to always be on the road, confined to tight spaces, and made to perform before screaming audiences.

“Wild animals, even if they're born in captivity, retain all their natural instincts, which are completely thwarted when they are trapped in small cages and shuttled from city to city in trucks and trailers,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

These stresses are exacerbated by the fact that the animals must perform unnatural physical acts: bears trained to prance on tightropes; elephants made to balance on chairs; tigers forced to jump through flaming hoops. The training, lifelong and relentless, is especially hard on performing animals.

It’s the same with any wild animal forced to interact regularly with humans. For an animal to be tamed, it must be “broken” early. For elephants that means being struck with bullhooks—sharp metal poles—from a very early age, until they’re docile enough to follow commands. For elephants in circuses, the training extends further. They don’t just have to be tame enough to give tourists rides—they need to twirl and balance on their hind legs. Every time an elephant doesn’t complete a perfect turn, it may be hit or otherwise disciplined. If a big cat doesn’t behave, it may be whipped and deprived of food.

“A hundred years or so ago, when we were ignorant about the intelligence and emotions and ability of a species to communicate, we might have had the excuse of our own ignorance that we treated these animals so badly,” says Jan Creamer, founder of Animal Defenders International and an advocate for TEAPSPA. “But we simply don’t have that excuse any longer. Wild animals in circuses don’t belong in an advanced, civilized society.”

After a 2011 Mother Jones investigation exposed pervasive cruelty toward elephants at Ringling Bros, a number of petitions and public interest campaigns demanded change. Ringling took notice and in March 2015 announced that it would no longer feature elephant acts. The circus since retired its 13 elephants to Ringling’s Florida-based Center for Elephant Conservation. The circus continued to feature big cats and other animals.

In the end, removing elephants wasn’t enough to save Ringling. In January, citing declining ticket sales and high operating costs, Kenneth Feld, CEO of Ringling parent company Feld Entertainment, announced the circus would close this year. It “had become an unsustainable business for the company,” he said in a statement.

Ultimately, Creamer says, Ringling may have endured if it had switched to human-only performances years ago. Cirque de Soleil is an example of a hugely successful circus that has never...