Honey and Vinegar

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Honey and Vinegar

By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
February 2010

Try as I might, I can't find a handy vegan analogy for what I witnessed over the past two days outside a circus protest, other than the adage "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." So with all due respect to flies, bees, and bona fide sociologists, I want to share the result of a little social psychology experiment I participated in.

Ringling Bros. Circus is in town where I live, and each year I'm among those who leaflet outside the arena, asking patrons to learn about the not-so-greatest show on Earth's training and treatment of exotic animals. The difference between this effort and other animal-related public awareness campaigns, such as speaking out against vivisection or wearing fur, is that at the circus, hundreds of small children are present. They are being escorted by protective parents or grandparents who don't necessarily welcome strangers coming up to them bearing signs with "kill" and "torture" on them. They have no idea who you are or exactly what you want from them, which makes many of them less than receptive. As a parent, I can relate to this protective instinct.

Equally understandably, the advocates who come to the arena on their own time, pay a good bit for transportation and/or parking, and stand there in near-freezing weather for purely altruistic reasons often don't give the circusgoers the benefit of the doubt. They long ago expected the public to wise up and realize, either through innate empathy or learning from years of news reports, that circuses exploit animals and should be avoided. It is immensely frustrating to see people engage in behavior that, to those of us who know better, is callous, selfish and downright cruel to others.

So yesterday, as in too many past years, there we all were on the sidewalk once again, couples and families running the gantlet of activists bearing signs and, in this case, a bullhorn, blaring information about beatings, killings and bloody wounds. A display of the recently released photos (taken by a former Ringling trainer) of shackled baby elephants was largely avoided by passersby. The glares of some of the circusgoers were more frigid than the February air, and the terse or even nasty comments from the patrons to the activists made all of us seriously question the "humanity" of these humans.

Among the comments I heard from the crowd yesterday:

"That's OK, we beat our animals at home, too." (from a man carrying his 2-year-old son on his shoulders)

"Hey, I'm gonna go have a big steak dinner after the show, you wanna join me?"

"I don't care!"

"Oh please, those animals are pampered!"

"Don't be silly!"

And of course, the perennial "Get a life!" (for which the logical reply, if you want to go that route, is "Get a conscience!")

It got so bad that at one point, some poor child's boorish father tried to get a chant started among the other parents waiting to get in, something along the lines of "We love the circus!," just to make some sort of point that no one was going to tell HIM what to do.


I came home feeling very demoralized, wondering how on earth the elephants, tigers and other circus animals would ever be freed from their miserable existence if neither federal courts nor the court of public opinion would ever find in their favor.

But today being Valentine's Day, I went back hoping to change the dynamic. We had already agreed to use a holiday theme, and instead of using the "beating and torture" signs, we held red heart-shaped signs with messages such as, "If you love animals, boycott Ringling;" "Circus cruelty breaks my heart;" "Ringling is heartless;" and "Show Love: Boycott Ringling." I persuaded my bullhorn friend – a longtime dedicated activist – to "go Gandhi" and instead of reciting gruesome injury details, simply and calmly ask (not tell) people to watch our video, read our literature, look at the pictures and consider compassionate choices.

The results were amazing!

Maybe it helped that the sun was a little warmer, but I honestly believe that by changing our visual and audible tone, people actually listened instead of tuning us out. People walked more slowly past us, looked at our signs, stood in front of the elephant photos and read each one, and watched the undercover video; they approached us and asked questions, they confessed their own reservations ("I told my husband they weren't good to the animals!") and several even apologized for being there ("We already have our tickets, but we won't come back.")

The demographics of today's audience were no different than yesterday's, and there were still a few – but very few – who felt compelled to hurl some sort of snarky remark at us. But overall, the number of receptive individuals seemed inversely proportional to those the day before, and I can see no other reason than the fact that the activists kept their anger in check, chose different imagery and words in their materials, and made it clear that they were there because they cared. In my experience, when you open your hand instead of pointing your finger, you're less likely to get a finger in return.

I have every reason to believe that a decent percentage of today's circusgoers won't be attending next year. By ditching the vinegar, we seemed to open more hearts and minds, which is what will ultimately save the animals. And there's nothing sweeter than that.

Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.