In May 2016, elephants with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus took their last turn around the big top. But despite the retirement of all pachyderms from performing, animal advocates are far from finished. They argue that elephants aren't the only animals exploited by the circus; the show goes on for lions, tigers, camels, and other critters.
"Ringling’s animal-care history is riddled with USDA violations and penalties, including the largest fine — $270,000 — ever against a circus," says Animal Rights Foundation of Florida's (ARFF) humane educator, James Wildman.
"The 2009 photos of Ringling trainers forcing baby elephants to learn tricks using ropes and bull hooks [metal pipes with hooks on the end] are the same methods used against other animals; it is absurd to assume the training methods would be any different," Wildman says. "No animal ever chose to be in the circus, and all perform out of fear and intimidation."
Wildman claims circus animals are separated from their mothers at birth and trained using chains, whips, stun guns, and electric prods. The circus life, he says, takes its toll; animals often exhibit neurotic behaviors such as head-bobbing, swaying, or cage-pacing.
Ringling Bros., however, says accusations of abuse are patently false. "That couldn't be further from the truth," says Stephen Payne, a spokesman for the circus. "We are very proud of the animal care we provide. We believe we set the standard."
Ringling trainers use positive reinforcement methods, says Payne: repetition and reward. "The men and women who spend their lives caring for these animals are dedicated professionals who put these animals' needs before their own."
Before each circus performance, trainers hold a 90-minute animal open house, Payne says. Attendees are invited to ask questions about animal care and see for themselves how the animals are treated. People are also invited to watch videos on Ringling's YouTube channel.
As far as whether the circus is unnatural for animals, Payne says Ringling's animals have been around people their entire lives. And their natural habitats are rapidly diminishing.
"There's no real wild left; almost every animal population exists in some form of man-managed environment. Our animals never have to worry about poachers. They never have to worry about not getting enough to eat or getting sick or injured. We have some of the best vets in the world."
Ringling is also inspected by the USDA in every location, he adds.
As far as ARFF is concerned, however, these animals don't belong in the circus. The group holds protests against Ringling Bros. every year when the show comes to Florida — in Miami, Orlando, and other cities. Activists show videos and hand out flyers.
"Most people attending the circus have no idea what they are supporting. When they are shown the animal cruelty of the circus, the response is usually receptive. Many people tell us this will be the last time they attend the show. In fact, Ringling Bros.' schedule confirms this; attendance is dropping year by year, and there are fewer shows scheduled this year than last, including the cancellation of all West Palm Beach shows," Wildman says.
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"ARFF encourages people to never attend a circus featuring animal acts and boycott all businesses which sponsor the circus," he adds. He recommends animal-free acts, such as Cirque du Soleil, to families wanting to give their kids the circus experience: "Encourage children to appreciate and respect wild animals in their natural habitat. Teach children that it is not acceptable to force animals to do tricks for our amusement."
When Ringling begins its Miami run January 6, protesters will gather outside American Airlines Arena. The group will meet at the north entrance. Dates and times for the protests are as follows:
- January 6, 6 to 7 p.m.
- January 7, 3 to 5 p.m.
- January 8, 3 to 5 p.m.
- January 13, 6 to 7 p.m.
- January 14, 1 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m.
- January 15, 1 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m.