The Greatest Sham on Earth

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The Greatest Sham on Earth

By D.A. Kolodenko, SDCityBeat.com
September 2009

This month [September 2009], Bolivian President Evo Morales signed the world’s first law banning the use of all wild and domestic animals in circuses, and I know what you’re thinking: What a cruel blow to the children of Bolivia, who deserve, like all the rest of the world’s kids, to be forced to watch an abused bear ride a bicycle.

Of course not. You’re thinking, good for Bolivia.

Almost everybody knows animal circuses are archaic, embarrassing, unnecessary, demeaning and abusive. We need to follow Bolivia’s example and put pressure on our own government to abolish the ridiculous spectacle of animal circuses.

The surprising thing is that Bolivia is the first country to take such an obviously humane and necessary step if we are to repair our broken selves and our broken relationship to the planet we’ve trashed.

There are a few other countries that have moved in the right direction on this issue: Croatia, Singapore, Austria and Israel have banned the use of wild animals in circuses, and Costa Rica, Finland and Denmark have banned the use of some species.

The Bolivian law resulted from evidence turned up in an undercover investigation by the nonprofit Animal Defenders International, according to Environment News Service, an international daily newswire. The investigation revealed that lions, bears, wolves and llamas were being confined in tiny cages and beaten. ADI videos show, for example, circus employees beating a lion in the circus ring with a baton and beating a caged lion with a metal pan. The Bolivian congress was moved by the ADI evidence and considers the animals’ treatment to be acts of cruelty.

The July 14 article quotes ADI Chief Executive Jan Creamer: “This is a truly historic day for circus animals. The undercover investigations, the scientific research and the hard work of our supporters in Bolivia has made a difference for animals that will reach around the world.”

But will it really reach around the world?

In fact, we may be reaching the tipping point on animal circuses.

In February, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus stood trial for six weeks in Washington, D.C., accused by animal-rights groups of violations of the Endangered Species Act. In a press release, Nicole Paquette of Born Free USA said the court considered testimony from former Ringling Bros. employees alleging that Ringling keeps elephants chained often for more than 26 hours at a time and as many as 100 hours straight, and that elephants suffer from bleeding wounds after being beaten with bull hooks.

After years of protests, months of delays and weeks of trial testimony, animal advocates have been waiting nearly half a year for a verdict. But various bloggers in the animal-rights community have been buzzing this month about the likelihood of a verdict before the end of the summer.

And just this week, PETA released a bombshell: A video taken in May of Ringling Bros. trainers beating elephants before a performance. A PETA member posing as a stagehand with the circus for six months shot the clandestine footage, which also shows tigers being whipped by trainers in a rehearsal. Based on the video, PETA has filed a criminal complaint against one of the trainers in Hartford, Conn., where the abuse took place.

The Associated Press reports that the employee could face up to a year in prison, the maximum sentence for cruelty to animals in Connecticut.

Ringling Bros. responded in a statement: “[We] believe the recent video produced and distributed by PETA is questionable in its context regarding the portrayal of the animal handlers. From January through June of this year, the alleged time covered in the video, this particular unit was found to be in compliance with federal, state and local regulations.

“Ringling Bros. is proud of its efforts to care for and increase the population of the endangered Asian elephant and we encourage people to come see for themselves that the animals are thriving in our care,” the company said.

Hey, we don’t even have to go to their show to see for ourselves. We can see the video at Peta.org. Funny, isn’t it, that the company’s statement doesn’t encourage people to watch this video, what with its “questionable context” of the hidden camera. They’d rather we experience their animal treatment in the context of a dazzling spectacle, free from the annoyance of witnessing what happens behind the scenes.

Since the footage was released months after the trial, it doesn’t have any impact on the verdict, but any hopes Ringling Bros. had for a quiet judgment have probably been dashed. PETA’s release of the video may be timed to raise the issue of abuse again in anticipation of the verdict.

Even if the timing is coincidental, the world is watching.

Most important—regardless of the verdict—is whether the continued attention of animal-rights groups to the plight of circus animals leads to a solution like Bolivia’s.

It could—but only if enough people start taking their kids to Cirque du Soleil instead of Cirque du So-Lame, and join organizations that fight circus-animal abuse, and demand from their representatives an end to the use of animals in circuses once and for all.