The Sadist Show on Earth?
Posted by Joel Schwartzberg April 14, 2008 1:12PM
Izod Center, April 12
Irate at Izod
My kids and I went to the Ringling Bros and Barnum &
Bailey circus on Saturday at the Izod Center. I can't remember the last
time I'd been to the circus -- possibly never -- but we all have
associations to the circus and know what to expect: clowns, animals,
trapeze artists, overpriced souvenirs, and other shocks.
Just outside the entrance was something I didn't
expect: a group of anti-circus protesters from the New Jersey Animal
Rights Alliance, shouting gory details of animal mistreatment and
holding signs. There were only a handful of them, corralled in a yellow
iron-gated playpen, but their point was compelling, especially when I
had to explain it to my five year-old daughter.
"Why are those people mad?" she asked.
"They're saying it's cruel to train animals to perform
"Well, sometimes the training involves..."
As I tried to find the right word, the image of Jack
Bauer came to mind.
"Sometimes the training hurts."
This was enough information for all three of my kids
to take a hard stance against the circus, but I said it was important to
go at least once, to see what it's all about.
Uhhhh...I'll pass on that balloon, thanks.
Animal cruelty aside -- and audience cruelty
considered -- "The Greatest Show on Earth" was, to these grown-up eyes,
a bit underwhelming. The clowns were earnest and energetic, but nothing
about them mitigated the "evil clown" imagery that takes frequent
residence in our nightmares and phobias, so the resulting combined
impression is that they're just...creepy.
When we stood for the National Anthem as a bedazzled
lady held an American flag and rode past us atop an elephant, I knew we
were in for something incredibly, and perhaps annoyingly, over-the-top.
In fact, "Over the Top" was the theme of the show, in which a head clown
steals the hat of the ringmaster and...oh, never mind.
There were some incredible, daring feats to be sure:
seven Paraguayan motorcyclists criss-crossing each other at full speed
inside a steel sphere, triple-somersaulting trapeze artists, Chinese
acrobats, and powerful Russian gymnasts. But the comic segments were
painfully slow and dumb, the songs were excruciatingly cheesy, and the
gorgeous tigers and snow-white horses in particular seemed decidedly
unhappy about being prodded with an electro-whip.
Looking resigned to their fate, majestic elephants
traveled tail-to-trunk in a slow parade around the ring. Occasionally
they sat back and raised their front legs like poodles, among other
completely unnatural tricks. It's apparently open season for making
elephants act completely out of character.
All of the animals were trained to act in direct
opposition to their natural inclinations, probably to make them seem as
lovable as their stuffed counterparts at the concession stand.
PETA's anti-circus site circuses.com puts it this way:
The fact is, animals do not naturally ride bicycles,
stand on their heads, balance on balls, or jump through rings of fire.
To force them to perform these confusing and physically uncomfortable
tricks, trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods,
bullhooks, and other painful tools of the trade.
As I waited on line to spend $10 on a box of popcorn and a bottle of
water, I began to think the animals weren't the only ones being trained.
The human audience was being guided, instructed, and occasionally duped
as well. Complaining about the price of a Diet Coke would probably have
gotten me zapped by a by-standing attendant.
Izod Center, April 12 Pachydermocracy?
On the way out of Izod, we saw the protesters arguing
with police about their signs. Maybe they should have been a little more
creative in their tactics.
"Everyone is WATCHING!" one protester yelled, but in
fact, few were watching at all. We were busy herding our children into
cars and following the exit ramps as directed.
"Everyone's got a complaint about something," I heard
a man tell his wife dismissively.
But the protesters made an impact on me, enough to
investigate further. Turns out the facts are pretty disturbing. A report
by the the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, and the
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals details not
just abuse and mistreatment of circus animals, but also evidence that
the USDA has looked the other way when it comes to circus animal
Ringling Bros. extols its own dedication to ethical
animal handling in a document buried on their website, though it's
weirdly short on details. Maybe because Ringling's history of past
violations has a sizable lead in the details department.
The circus strongly encourages you to watch the
animals during the show with your own eyes to understand if they're
being mistreated. That's like watching a Michael Jackson video to
determine if he'll be a good babysitter. Considering one of the
Meadowland Sports Center's biggest sponsors, you'd think someone would
be answering to a higher authority.
I'll probably steer myself and my family toward
non-animal circuses in the future. All beasts deserve a free-to-roam
home in their natural habitats, be it in a wildlife preserve, the
jungle, or -- in the case of our cats -- the master bedroom.