Standing with the Elephants

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Standing with the Elephants

By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute

After waiting all year for a legal ruling that I anticipated with more excitement than a kid at Christmas, I was devastated to hear that the judge presiding over the Ringling Bros. circus case dismissed the lawsuit because he found that the plaintiffs – humane groups and former employee Tom Rider - lacked the legal standing necessary to prosecute. It felt like a swinging bullhook blow to the knees.

This time last year I was, along with other local advocates, dreading the arrival of the circus in Atlanta. Dreading the time it takes to drive an hour into town, the high cost of parking (which funds the venue), standing on the cold and often windy sidewalk outside the arena with signs and leaflets, and perhaps most of all dreading the disparaging comments from ignorant (or outright hostile) parents who can't or won't concern themselves with the truth. Dreading the knowledge that the circus protests get little or no media attention aside from the free tickets given out by the TV and radio stations that ought to be educating people instead.

The dread isn't for lack of commitment; in the course of my editorial work I've had the opportunity to talk to former (and even current) elephant trainers and "keepers" and feel pretty well versed on the subject of circus cruelty. I've read what elephant expert Gay Bradshaw documented in the ASI policy paper. I know that what goes on in laboratories, factory farms and slaughterhouses needs (but only occasionally gets) equal attention, but for whatever reason the plight of the elephants compels me to show up, so I do my best to do so as often as possible while they're here.

It's particularly important to me to be there when fleets of big yellow school buses and small daycare vans arrive at the morning shows they offer, at a time when few people can get off work to protest. Much to my own children's embarrassment, I often dress up in a tiger costume to be more approachable (nobody can look dangerous in striped orange flannel). Some kids probably understand the humane messages sooner and better than their parents do, but many are too young to know why we're there and likely assume that if their teacher or their parents brought them there, it must be OK.

Mostly, I dread another generation growing up to think that it's acceptable to make animals who are supposed to grow up in big wild spaces live in very small spaces and do whatever "tricks" we demand of them. Too many of those kids then become parents who don't question, don't empathize, and on it goes. It appalls me to think that it's possible in the time span of a single elephant's life on the road, two generations of the same family may pay to see her put through her paces.

Last year, the circus came to town just as the federal trial was starting, and Atlanta activists used that information to discourage people from attending. All of us out there fervently hoped that perhaps this would be the last year that such terrible abuse would be allowed to happen. But such was not the case, and after all the effort that went into the trial, it seems nothing much will come of it. At least not what we hoped.

I understand the issue of legal standing and know that it's not the first time such an argument has been used to stop animal advocates from seeking justice on behalf of other species. But I fail to understand how a judge could hear all that testimony - and I've read a lot of it - and not be moved to act, to issue some sort of opinion within the legal parameters that would at least acknowledge what the elephants have been forced to endure.

But because they must still endure it, I and the many others who are already following this year's tour are going to give another meaning to "standing." We will, this year as last year and every year we must, be standing outside those tents and arenas yet again. We'll be angry and tired and fed up, but we'll be out there, hoping that our message will get through to one family, one teacher, one school or sponsor at a time until either the circus becomes obsolete or another way is found to liberate the elephants once and for all. And we'll be standing with our colleagues at the organizations that devote much time and effort and surveillance trying to pry the lid of secrecy off the Big Top.

Ringling and the court may have knocked us back a bit. But we know what's at stake, and we will remain standing, alongside the elephants in spirit.