Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Circus Problem

The Circus is coming to town.

At church we've been hearing sermon anecdotes about the pastor's tradition of taking his girls to see the circus every year; and we're being asked to make a donation to send refugee children to the circus.

I'm all in favor of family traditions, and I'm all in favor of giving refugee children an opportunity for an entertaining outing.

However. A few years ago my friend Q sensitized me to the animal cruelty issues that accompany circus acts that involve animals, to which I had been happily oblivious. So I am here today to use the Power of the Blog to educate you, dear readers (all six to eight of you) about the issue, so that you can make an informed choice about whether to support animal circuses in the future.

You might, like me, have the impression that anti-circus activists are card-carrying PETA members, extremists who throw paint on fur-wearing socialites and wear shoes made out of bamboo shoots. And perhaps some are.

But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because PETA has a reputation for extremism doesn't mean that they are wrong on every issue. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, "Extremism in defense of the humane treatment of animals is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of the humane treatment of animals is no virtue."

PETA claims that Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus mis-characterizes its handling of animals in its marketing materials. Rather than training methods using touch, food, and praise, as they claim, Ringling apparently uses bullhooks and beatings to dominate and subdue circus elephants.

The USDA has frequently cited circuses for animal welfare violations. Here's a link to an FDA Inspection Report from a circus in Florida (not Ringling) that cites problems with veterinary treatment, animals with untreated lesions, and unacceptable caging. It's not an isolated situation.

The Humane Society of the United States "opposes the use of wild animals in circuses and other traveling acts because cruelty to animals is inherent in such displays" (italics mine). They bust the marketing myths about the care and welfare of circus animals in this article. Surprise! Wild animals do not do their tricks out of love for their trainers. Elephants don't balance on tiny chairs for their own enjoyment. They do it to avoid pain.

We don't have to answer here the philosophical questions raised by the Circus Problem (i.e., What is our responsibility to animals? What does the ethical treatment of animals look like in a humane, civilized society? What should animals be used for?), even though those are excellent questions. It's enough to assert and affirm that animals should not be treated with cruelty. That's the law.

It's also a stated principle of the American Veterinary Medical Association: "Animals should be cared for in ways that minimize fear, pain, stress, and suffering." (Read the other seven principles of animal welfare here.) Circuses just do not meet these criteria, especially the part about using "thoughtful consideration for [the animals'] species-typical biology and behavior." A bear riding a bike is definitely not species-typical behavior.

So before you take your kids to the circus, think about the messages you're giving them about how we should treat animals.

Sorry to spoil your fun. Blame it on Q.


J said...

ahhh! i'm so glad someone else had the same reaction to the 'let's take the refugee kids to the circus' idea. i was in knots about it. i certainly remember going to the circus as a kid, and i really did want to help support a fun outing for kids who are unlikely to have many such opportunities, but i couldn't bare the thought of supporting the circus itself in any capacity... one of my best friends is a zoo keeper, and i've grown to respect zoos a lot more by getting to go 'behind the scenes' with her. but the circus? sorry, it gets no love from me.

thanks for your post!

Anonymous said...

JRO: I feel your circus angst. I remember taking little JCub to a circus in Florida when we both wanted to cry. The poor little dog was strapped to a bicycle riding on a high wire. It was horrible. I am never in favor of circus love.

J. Cub said...

Wow I don't remember that... I definitely have that feeling about circuses, though.

hammerdad said...

I just got free tickets so I am going to be sure that my 4 and 5 year olds don't read your blog this week!!!!!!

E. Peevie said...


There goes half my readership.

What are you going to tell them when they ask you, "Daddy, how do they get the elephants to do those tricks?" and "Does the bear like riding the bicycle?"

I'm just saying.

E. Peevie