BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
The Greatest Show on Earth has finally shut its doors. After 146 years, 37 presidents, a great depression, and two world wars, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus – citing declining attendance rates and increasing operational costs – has announced that the Big Top will close for good in May 2017.
On the one hand, it’s a sad moment for those who try to cling on to whatever remains of nostalgic Americana; the whistle of the circus train, the smell of popcorn, the death-defying stunts of the human cannonballs and acrobats will only live on in memories. On the other hand, animal rights activists the world over have cited this as a major victory for the cause, and for good reason: it’s no secret that circus animals are regularly cited as victims of animal abuse. Circuses and animal entertainment venues have been regularly investigated by government authorities and animal welfare organizations such as PETA and the ASPCA. Toppling the biggest circus in the world is a powerful symbolic victory over animal abuse.
Beginning as a travelling “museum” in the 1840s, Phineas Taylor Barnum’s and James Bailey’s entrepreneurial endeavor soon brought them in contact with the Ringling Brothers, a roaming troupe of vaudeville entertainers and acrobats. Rather than compete with one another, the two groups agreed in 1895 to divide and conquer the United States: the Ringlings would take Chicago while Barnum and Bailey toured New York. The Ringlings bought out Barnum and Bailey’s company in 1907 after the death of its founder, and merged in 1919 to become the modern circus we know today. The mile-long circus trains that trawled the United States in their heyday grew into roaming cities, supporting roving populations of acrobats, clowns, lions, tigers… and elephants.
Humans have been fascinated by elephants for centuries. When they weren’t using them to cross the Alps, Romans and other Mediterranean civilizations used elephants for sport, even drafting the pachyderms into the spectacular gladiatorial fights that laid the foundations for the modern circus. Unfortunately, the glossy reputation of the Big Top concealed its darker workings. It’s difficult to train an intelligent, inquisitive animal that can easily snap a man’s neck, and in the years before anyone thought to string the words “animal welfare” together, trainers conditioned their animals using brutal tools like metal-tipped bull hooks. Between shows, circuses chained down the elephants and confined them to boxcars. “Rogue elephants” – a polite word for elephants that had had enough and retaliated against their trainers, usually lethally – were sold off to other circuses under pseudonyms or quietly killed after hours.
Nobody thought much of this practice until animal welfare and environmental awareness groups came onto the scene in the 1980s and 1990s. Their often-undercover investigations into circus conditions revealed that most animals were kept in extremely poor conditions, with almost three-quarters of the animals suffering from health problems. Well-documented evidence of continuing bull hook abuse forced circuses on the defensive, and a spate of damning public elephant rampages in the 1990s did little to help the increasingly bad publicity that surrounded the circus industry. In response, numerous countries within the EU soon banned the use of animals in circuses, as did certain regions in the United States and Canada. The fact that elephants and tigers both soon found their way to the growing list of endangered species did little to help Ringling’s self-cultivated reputation as “animal-lovers.”
After years of bad press, protests, and boycotts, Ringling Brothers made the widely-publicized decision to remove elephants from their shows in 2016. All currently performing elephants would be relocated to Ringling’s pre-existing elephant refuge and “retirement facility” in southern Florida. It was a textbook case of too little, too late: lions, tigers, and other animals remained on the venue, dissuading animal fans. Their attempts to salvage their reputation only hurt them further; ticket sales crashed even further after what fans there were of the performing pachyderms ditched the circus. Though Ringling experimented with other acts in their stead, the verdict was in: it was time to take down the tent.
The slow but steady decline of Ringling can also be attributed to America’s changing social and media landscape in an increasingly turbulent country. Once upon a time, circuses were the only way to see exotic animals like lions and elephants. Nowadays, anyone can look up clips of any animal in their natural habitat on the internet. Stuntmen defy death every day in Hollywood. And the reputation of clowns as fun-loving mirth-makers hasn’t held up so well after the likes of Pennywise and the Joker co-opted their image.
Perhaps it didn’t have to be this way. Zoos, for instance, found ways to adapt to changing social pressures: they expanded their exhibits to create naturalistic habitats, kickstarted captive breeding programs aimed at bolstering endangered populations, and educated visitors about the importance of biodiversity. Circuses did not.
What circuses remain in the world would do well to compare Ringling – the animal-based circus who stagnated and died – to modern circuses like the animal-free Cirque du Soleil, which still enjoys steady prosperity as it continues to innovate and deploy new twists on the old circus formula. The message is clear, children of all ages: evolve or die.