For decades, the nation's largest animal rights organizations have been fighting ferociously to stop circuses from utilizing wild animals in their performances. From PETA to the ASPCA to ARFF, these groups argue that such practices are abusive, unnatural and antiquated.
But for the profiteers, the show must go on, and the biggest target of these group's efforts, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, opened in Miami this week. At last night's debut, protesters planned to greet big top guests with leaflets, graphic images and pleas to take their dollars elsewhere. But what are the facts behind the accusations against "The Greatest Show on Earth" and other circuses like them?
Last year, Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, shelled out $270,000 to settle animal care citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the largest amount ever paid by an animal exhibitor. The allegations included claims that they violated federal animal-welfare laws when handling elephants, tigers, zebras and other animals. Despite the payout, Ringling is quick to say that they never admitted to real wrongdoing.
"We are regulated by the USDA, we're a licensed exhibitor, we did not agree with a vast majority of the findings the USDA had," says Steve Payne, a spokesman for Ringling. "So say we disagreed with nine out of 10 findings, and we weren't given the option of disputing those nine - it was almost an all or nothing proposition. So we made a business decision of settling with the regulator. They've inspected us on multiple occasions since and there haven't been any issues."
Nevertheless, undercover videos widely dispersed online show Ringling trainers striking elephants on the head and body with bullhooks, also known as elephant goads. These sharp metal tools are designed to control the massive mammals.
PETA says the circus has a history of abuse, and there are photos, videos, testimonials and pages of documents supporting such claims. "We are concerned about the routine physical and psychological abuse that elephants and other animals suffer at the hands of Ringling. We have video footage from undercover investigations that show these animals are whipped, beaten, yanked by heavy, sharp steel-tipped bullhooks and abused in other ways behind the scenes before they perform," says PETA Campaign Specialist Ashley Byrne.
Despite all the accusations, and even when faced with what some would call visual evidence, Ringling says all treatment of their animals is humane. "In terms of training, it's based on positive reinforcement, it's the most efficient and easiest and most humane way to treat an animal."
Then why the need for bullhooks? Payne says "guides," as they call them, are an accepted tool for animal husbandry per the USDA.
While there are other animals involved in such accusations, including tigers, horses, zebras, camels and llamas, elephants have been the target of a majority of media attention, namely because they're Ringling's banner attraction. Highly intelligent, elephants form strong social bonds. In the wild, mothers and daughters remain companions for life, and families travel together, walking dozens of miles daily. They're herbivores, and have no natural predators - other than man, of course.
"Most elephant families stay together for life, but in the circus they tear baby elephants away from their mothers, babies are screaming and mothers are screaming," says Don Anthony, Communications Director for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF).
In 2009, a former Ringling employee, Sam Haddock, came forward with scores of photos and a compelling testimonial outlining the "training" process for baby elephants, including wrestling them down with ropes, poking them with sharp hooks, and using electric shocks.
Ringling tends to dismiss questions about the videos and photos, claiming they've been misconstrued or tampered with. "Again a lot of what PETA does is they take images, they enhance the sounds, they selectively edit," Payne says.
But for many viewers, seeing is believing. And many of the videos are disturbing, to say the least.
"The very nature of the way the animals are kept and trained for circuses, abuse is an inherent part of it. Elephants are deprived on a daily basis of their most basic needs: to exercise, to roam, to socialize, to forage and play, and when you're being kept in a stuffy boxcar for up to 50 weeks out of the year, they're simply not going to get their emotional, social, and physical needs met," Byrne says.
When met with criticism about their practices, Ringling reps often refer to their conservation and breeding efforts. In 1995, the company opened the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. They've had 22 births to date, and performance elephants are relocated to the facility upon retirement.
"I was just at the conservation center the day before last and young Piper, one of our births just last year, was out playing in the field with her mother and her aunt. We don't engage in 99.9% of practices that animals rights activists claim we do. They're making these claims because they have a political agenda," Payne adds.
But critics say the center is nothing more than a breeding facility, operating for Ringling's profit. "The circus loves to talk about conservation but the fact is not one elephant or any animal was ever set free in nature again. Not one has ever been shipped back to their natural habitat. The whole conservation bit is a lie. It's conservation for their own financial sake," Anthony says.
Ringling makes the argument that nature can indeed be dangerous for these animals. In many countries, poaching and territorial encroachment are common. "Sadly there is no wild anymore," says Payne. "If you're an animal you're probably going to be pretty happy that you've gotten room service rather than go out and forage," he argues.
Of course the issue isn't quite that simple. Elephants are born wanderers, not vacationing Americans.
So what's the answer? According to animal rights activists, Miami should be following in the footsteps of other cities. Many have already banned the use of circus elephants, while others have simply banned bullhooks (which by default means circuses make their homes elsewhere). Locally, various forms of legislation have been passed in Hollywood, Lauderdale Lakes, Margate, Hallandale Beach, Pompano Beach and Weston.
It's a battle being waged in multiple cities across the U.S. (and world), and critics of the circus say they're winning. Los Angeles is currently considering a ban on circus elephants, and more than a dozen countries across the world have outlawed the use of wild animals in circuses altogether (or limited it by species) including Sweden, Bolivia, Peru and Costa Rica, among others.
"We are seeing great deal of backlash against Ringling Brothers and other acts that use exotic animals. Every year when there are people protesting outside of circuses, we see so many people who come and see the undercover footage that's being screened and tear up their tickets or turn around or pledge that it's the last year they'll ever attend," says Byrne. "Some people even join the demonstration instead of going inside. Most people absolutely do not support this kind of cruelty to animals so it's really just a matter of letting them see what's happening."
"Wild animals belong in the wild, not in cages, not in chains not beaten with metal pipes," Anthony says. "There's nothing wholesome or family-friendly about a circus. Abusing animals for profit and allegedly for entertainment has got to go."
Aggressive opposition hasn't always worked in favor of animal rights groups. Recently, the ASPCA paid a $9.3 million settlement to Feld based on more than a decade of attempted litigation and accusations. The ASPCA was backing a supposed whistleblower and former Ringling employee, Tom Rider, but a judge ruled his testimony suspect after discovering Rider was being paid. Feld still has ongoing legal proceedings against the Humane Society of the United States, the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Animal Protection Institute United with Born Free USA, Rider and attorneys.
For others in the animal field, the issue isn't about abuse. It's about putting wild animals in wholly unnatural situations. Should lumbering elephants really be standing on their heads? Should solitary-by-nature tigers be sitting on stools side by side? Should any wild animals be riding around in boxcars instead of roaming the wilderness?
"I don't think that they mistreat their animals, I just think they're putting them in a situation that's not natural. The irony is, I was one of those kids who was intrigued by the circus, but as I've gotten older I've come to understand it's the wrong thing to do for the animal," says Ron Magill of Zoo Miami. "Having had the privilege to see tigers in the wild, it upsets me to see them put into a dog and pony show. The dog and pony show should be for dogs and ponies, that's why an animal is domesticated, because for hundreds of thousands of years they've been alongside man." (Note: Zoo Miami has no official position on Ringling Brothers)
But Ringling, in its 129-year tradition, continues to cling to its animal legacy.
"We are very, very proud of what we do every single day. We like to showcase our animal care, and when questions come up we stand ready to answer them. We really do want people to come see for themselves. I think once they do they'll recognize that we really are advocates of animal welfare and animals are thriving in our care," says Payne.
Magill hopes the circus can eventually move in a different direction, one that keeps the animals where they belong. "I'm just hoping that as time goes on that Ringling can start following the path of a Cirque du Soleil where you have great entertainment but you're not putting animals in these unnatural conditions." Cirque du Soleil's show Totem, incidentally, hosted its opening last night as well.
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There's a beauty and dignity inherent to the natural world; to the wild and untamed. But animal advocates say it's tough to see the dignity in nature's largest land animal forced to perform acrobatics at the business end of a sharp stick.
"We always advise families, if they want their kids to learn about nature, take them to the Everglades to see how animals live in their wild state," Ashley adds. "Watch National Geographic. You see animals in their habitats and learn what animals are like when they're not caged up shells of themselves."