The Circus On the Street

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The Circus On the Street

By Jill Howard-Church from Animals and Society Institute
April 2009

As is custom and humane obligation, I attended the opening night protest of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it came to town this weekend. Many familiar faces lined the sidewalk outside the arena entrance, with a stack of somewhat tattered signs and banners dutifully piled nearby so each person could hold up the message or image that best conveyed his or her sentiments about the event. Some held signs, others passed out leaflets and some tried to do both.

The circus protest had special meaning this year, since last week Ringling and its parent company, Feld Entertainment, went on trial in federal district court in Washington, D.C., to answer charges that its treatment of Asian elephants violates the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The plaintiffs the ASPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, the Animal Protection Institute and former Ringling employee Tom Rider are finally getting their day in court on behalf of the elephants. The proverbial elephant in the (court)room is whether these animals, born or made captive, have any right to a halfway normal life one that presumably excludes being whacked with a bullhook, being kept chained to the floor for hours on end, or being squeezed into railcars and hauled around the country for most of the year. Ringling and Feld bank on the image of the circus as wholesome family entertainment, and act like victims themselves when confronted with videotape, eyewitness testimony or any suggestion that their elephants are treated as anything but pampered pets. They know that tradition, combined with ignorance and/or outright unwillingness to learn the dark side of the circus, is on their side. What remains to be seen is whether the law has a loophole wide enough to ride an elephant through.

So as we who know more than we care to about the treatment of circus elephants stood outside the arena, facing hundreds of people lining up to enter, the task of enlightening the masses once more loomed. The crowd was mostly families with small children, often one toddler in each hand or riding atop shoulders, but there were also young couples and elderly ones. They had diverse backgrounds but shared a fairly even mix of curiosity and caution about our presence. After all, they were there for a night of supposedly simple fun, and there we were with pictures of sad, chained elephants and words such as "torture," "beatings," and "abuse" on our signs.

I've found leafletting at circuses to be an emotionally draining task. Although there are a good number of people who graciously take flyers or even express their own concerns about the animals, there is a small but vocal percentage who take great offense to our message. Whether it's the presence of young children that makes parents' protective hackles go up or whether our message is so different from the mood the audience anticipates, the mere suggestion that all is not sunshine and happiness under the Big Top sometimes brings out extremely rude behavior in people. I don't mind the ones who politely decline to take flyers, but the ones who go out of their way to swerve around us, avoid all eye contact, or declare that we're "ridiculous," "silly" or "ought to have better things to do" truly mystify me. The ones who take a flyer and then angrily shove it in the nearest trash can, or better, ball it up and hurl it back at us, make me wonder what kind of emotional nerve we're hitting. It's a sociology and psychology lab-in-the-making out there, both to study the reactions from passersby and the cultural factors that seem to make people of color much more open minded and sympathetic to the animals' plight.

This year, with the Ringling trial occasionally in the news (but not nearly often enough, likely due to the influence of Feld Entertainment's millions of advertising dollars on the local media), the message might find its way into the collective consciousness a little more easily. As people filed past us, my two lasting thoughts were that a) the next time they read or hear something about circus animal cruelty, they'll realize we might actually know what we're talking about after all, and b) the older children I see reading our signs out loud might very well "get it" long before their parents do.

But however tedious it gets out there on the sidewalk, some years in cold wind and drizzling rain, we whose consciences will not let us stay home will stand side by side with our signs and our leaflets year after year if we must. We will hope for justice either in the federal court or the court of public opinion, and look forward to the day when we and the elephants and the tigers aren't chained to this miserable ritual any more.


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.

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