Originally published in the Philadelphia Daily News April 15, 2005
THE CIRCUS elephants are coming to town next week, bringing an outmoded and problematic form of entertainment to all Philadelphians. Here's hoping that this is the last year such an antiquated spectacle is welcomed within our city limits.
The standard line is that elephants are trained only with "food rewards and words of praise," and enjoy being circus stars - there's somebody who actually believes this, as Barnum observed, born every minute.
Video documentation of abusive elephant-training practices punctures the "food and praise" theory, and now there's wider acknowledgment of a serious problem. Calls to re-examine the issue of captive elephants are now coming from people within the institutions themselves.
Former Ringling employee Tom Rider has gone public about the beatings he says are routine in the training of circus elephants.
"Whenever the USDA inspected the circus, the circus always knew in advance that they were coming," he testified before Congress. "We were always told to clean up, don't hit the elephants when they come around. " And former USDA inspector Peggy Larson has called USDA compliance for circuses "at best hopelessly ineffective. " (Even so, with a string of deaths among its animals, Ringling has repeatedly faced citations for improper animal handling. )
But the elephant issue in particular got hotter last May, when Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan announced the zoo was shutting down its elephant exhibit and sending its two remaining elephants to a sanctuary. The San Francisco zoo soon followed suit, shipping off its elephants and committing to prohibitive space requirements that effectively end that exhibit. This touched off a national debate among animal handlers about how much room elephants require. Unspoken was the agreement that the 240 square feet of a standard boxcar does not qualify.
When circuses began using elephants, humans had little grasp of the animal's intelligence, complex social networks and ability to suffer, and the notion of hauling these majestic beasts around for inane shows could be excused as shortsighted ignorance.
But, as Kagan points out, "now we understand how much more is needed to be able to meet all the physical and psychological needs of elephants in captivity," and public opinion about circus elephants is shifting as this sinks in.
While fringe media have always loudly protested, mainstream sources are now chronicling this change. In 2001, Richard Corliss wrote in Time magazine that "the traditional circus seems uncomfortably out of place in today's entertainment market. It's the interspecies version of a minstrel show. "
More recently, Marlene Fanta Shyer explained in the Christian Science Monitor why she won't take her grandchildren to an animal circus now that she's connected the dots: "t's not what I thought. It's not a pat on an animal's head and peanuts that encourage an elephant to become an unpaid actor. " And last month, Margo Jefferson's review of a Ringling show in the New York Times noted that "our consciousness has changed. We worry about how the animals are trained and treated. "
While there are ample reasons to ban elephant acts simply on the basis of public safety - from rampaging animals and the spread of diseases like tuberculosis - the main fact is that public awareness is inexorably tipping against this injustice. Smaller cities across America, and some countries, have banned these acts. Cirque du Soleil and its ilk prove that entertainment need not involve animal exploitation, and even Cole Bros., Ringling's main competitor, has said they're phasing out elephants.
Instead of digging in, Ringling should follow and continue to delight us with the considerable talents of their human cast.
But if they don't, Philadelphia - with a commitment to non-violence dating back to its Quaker founder - should take a historic stand: We should be first major metropolis in the U.S. to ban circus elephant performances. *
Vance Lehmkuhl is the online editor of the Daily News.