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The Changing Face of the Circus: Performing Animals Going Extinct?

A circus elephant carrying a banner promoting “Indians” = double whammy of political incorrectness. A circus elephant carrying a banner promoting “Indians” = double whammy of political incorrectness.

Animal rights activists have long rallied against what they consider to be heinous cruelty: the use of "animal entertainers" in circuses and other traveling shows. For the first time, it appears that the tide of public opinion may be turning in their favor. As more and more shows across the U.S. and around the world turn to human-only entertainment, will this mean the end of the animal performer? 

Animal welfare groups, such as Born Free and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) certainly hope so. "Colorful pageantry disguises the fact that animals used in circuses are captives," the PETA website argues, "who are forced -under threat of punishment - to perform confusing, repetitious, almost painful acts." Arguments like this have convinced the governments of 14 countries across four continents to ban or severely restrict the use of animals in circuses and other entertainment acts.

Most recently in the U.K., a public opinion poll showing that 72% of the voting public favored a ban of animal performers inspired a vote in Parliament to disallow the practice outright. Similar bans are already in place in countries like Austria, Costa Rica, Israel, and even China. Many other nations in Europe and Asia have prohibited the use of wild-caught and other species of animal, such as the elephant.

Armed with hidden-camera videos that appear to show animal abuse at the hands of Ringling trainers, they have embarked on a massive campaign to sway public opinion against Ringling and other circuses that still use animal entertainers.

This wave of animal rights sentiment has inspired many circuses across the US to voluntarily remove animals from their act. California-based Circus Vargas, one of the country's oldest traveling circuses, had been dogged for years by complaints of abuse. They made the decision last year to only use human performers in their shows. Dozens of other traveling and stationary circuses have already been entertaining audiences nationwide with acrobats, clowns, and other human performers, and without the lions, tigers, bears, and elephants of yesterday's circus. 


Of course, the country's largest and most famous traveling circus, Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey, still uses a variety of wild animals for a large part of their act, and appear to have no plans of voluntarily following suit. They argue that not only is their care exceptional and training enjoyable to the animals, but that many of their performers, such as the endangered Asian Elephant, are actually better off with them than in the wild. Their website argues that "In the wild, elephants are threatened by predators, hunters, and starvation due to a dwindling natural habitat. The elephants at Ringling Brothers are assured a lifetime of veterinary care, nutritious meals, and a clean, safe home." 

The people at PETA are not buying this argument. Armed with hidden-camera videos that appear to show animal abuse at the hands of Ringling trainers, they have embarked on a massive campaign to sway public opinion against Ringling and other circuses that still use animal entertainers. They routinely protest outside of Ringling Brothers performances, and urge communities and venues to not welcome any animal-filled circus to town. 

 

With the growing popularity of human-only circuses like Cirque Du Soleil, and increasing concern publicly about allegations of cruelty, one must wonder whether the end of the era of the circus animal is drawing near. Katya Quiroga, co-owner of the now animal-free Circus Vargas, echoed the growing sentiment in a 2010 interview with The Daily Breeze. "We're trying to keep the traditional feeling, yet move with the times... The show we envisioned didn't fit with the animals." A lot has changed about the world since the first modern circus opened in 1768. Perhaps the departure from animal performers and allegations of abuse to talented and dedicated human artists is yet another natural progression. 

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Ringling Brothers were the targets of a lawsuit for animal cruelty.
Last modified on Monday, 23 July 2012 17:02

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