The Greatest Showman’s menagerie of mistreatment
An Animal Rights Article from


Fran Silverman, FOA Friends of Animals
January 2018

Boycotting a movie the uses CGI animals is not the answer; but viewers should certainly boycott the message, which in “The Greatest Showman” is nothing but a misty-eyed view of a menagerie of mistreatment.

greatest showman

When I was an editor at a daily newspaper in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the Barnum Festival took center stage. Each year, the paper would gear up to cover the events of the festival, which celebrated the life of the one of the city’s most famous mayors and country’s most renowned showman, Phineas Taylor Barnum. The festival included the naming of a ring leader who would help oversee it. It was a big deal in the city for which Barnum is still a major figure, with a museum dedicated to showcasing his life, a hospital he helped sustain and a cemetery where he and his famous diminutive sidekick, Charles Stratton, aka Major Tom Thumb, are buried.And now the Greatest Showman’s life is the subject of a Golden Globe nominated movie, “The Greatest Showman” where actor Huge Jackman portrays the founder of the famed traveling circus as a savvy, plucky innovator who pulled himself out of poverty by displaying human curiosities and hoaxes to become a philanthropist and supporter of the arts.

While the musical should be commended for using computer generated images for circus animals (viewers just get a quick glimpse of CGI Jumbo, an African bush elephant from the Sudan who Barnum purchased amid public protests from the London Zoo for his exhibit) it almost completely avoids the animal and human rights issues at the center for his business’ ultimate demise.While it gives a nod to the moral antipathy his exhibits of dwarfs, conjoined twins and bearded ladies drew from some quarters of 19th century New York society where his museums first opened, it completely avoids the animal rights issues that are still sparking protests, including a petition to the Golden Globe which has more than 51,000 signatures requesting it not reward the movie with a best movie award. (It didn’t – “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” won, though it did win for best song, “This is Me.”)

Speaking of “This is Me,” Jackman’s Barnum belts out this line: “I’m not scared to be seen; I make no apologies, this is me.” But Barnum should make apologies. There are lots of unsavory stories about Barnum’s treatment of humans and nonhuman animals, such as the slave he leased who he said was a nurse to George Washington and whose autopsy he made a public spectacle.

It’s also interesting to note that while Barnum’s major antagonist in the movie is a newspaper critic and his father-in-law who disapproves of his humble background, what isn’t portrayed is that one of his major public squabbles was with Henry Bergh, an animal rights activist who founded the ASPCA. Bergh, a report in The Atlantic notes, badgered Barnum on a variety of animal welfare issues including the use of bullhooks on the elephants, feeding live animals to his snakes and the fiery rings his horses jumped through during his shows.

Friends of Animals has also been vocal in its opposition to the mistreatment of Barnum’s circus animals. Each time Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town in Bridgeport (which is near FoA headquarters) members and supporters toting signs and our “Ringling and Reality” brochures that revealed the true nature of how the animals were treated, protested peacefully. We also took on the Bridgeport Board of Education for making Barnum’s circus part of the school district’s curriculum.

Our education and protest efforts, along with animal rights activists across the country who kept the heat on Barnum, lead to a sea change in public opinion. Barnum announced it was retiring its circus elephants and last year, it shut its tent for good. More than 80 U.S. municipalities, including Los Angeles, Burlington, Vermont, and Boulder, Colorado and New York City have now banned the use of animal performers in circuses. New York state banned elephant performers and New Jersey is on the brink of becoming the first state to prohibit the use of wild or exotic animals in traveling acts if Gov. Chris Christie does the right thing and signs the bill that recently passed in the legislature. Many European countries have also banned the use of circus animals including Italy and Ireland. But there is more work to be done as other circuses continue to use animals in performances.

Boycotting a movie the uses CGI animals is not the answer; but viewers should certainly boycott the message, which in “The Greatest Showman” is nothing but a misty-eyed view of a menagerie of mistreatment.

Communications Director Fran Silverman oversees FoA’s public affairs and publications. Her previous experience includes editor of a national nonprofit consumer advocacy site, staff writer and editor positions and contributing writer for The New York Times.

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