Today there was a mostly good news story that the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is “phasing out” the use of elephants from their shows. I say “mostly good” because for some reason they’re going to take three years to do it. I can only guess that’s due to the shows they’ve already booked and/or they need to find a suitable home for the elephants but I see no reason why it should take so long (there are two major elephant sanctuaries in the U.S. as well as three in South Africa.). It speaks to the larger problem that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey still don’t see freeing elephants from captivity as a priority and it also speaks to their reluctance to give up a tradition that should have ended years ago. This is strictly a public relations exercise for them.
Like so much rhetoric when it comes to the rights of animals and their welfare, it would make me laugh if it weren’t so fucking tragic. The Executive Vice-President of Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling, said the reason for the phasing out is due to “a mood shift among our consumers.” I’ll say. Thanks to 35 years of animal activists protesting outside your shows.
Another reason they’re phasing out the elephants is that as more and more cities are passing laws regulating the use of live animals and animals in captivity, “it’s expensive to fight legislation in each jurisdiction,” and according to the President of Feld, “It’s also difficult to plan tours amid constantly changing regulations.” So this is a business decision, really, and one that has nothing to do with any actual concern for the elephants beyond them being a product that is now more trouble to sell than is worth.
My favourite part, of course, is when the company tries to paint itself as humanitarians who want nothing but the best for the elephants. From the President of Feld: “All of the resources used to fight these things can be put towards the elephants. We’re not reacting to our critics; we’re creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephants.”
Sure you are. When asked why he wouldn’t move the elephants sooner, he said it “was impractical until accommodations have been built for them at the company’s 200-acre private park in Florida.” I have to wonder if they’re really going to build a bigger facility just to house retired elephants that will only cost them money rather than make any.
I don’t want to rain too much on the parade: this is good news. The landscape is clearly changing and the mood is indeed shifting, which is fantastic. The fewer the elephants taken from their native homes, separated from their mothers and trained to do tricks for the amusement of humans through the use of bullhooks and corporal punishment, the better. But only the message has changed here – the attitude remains the same: animals are here for us, not with us. Change – REAL, ACTUAL CHANGE – has to come from a change of heart. A change of mind in how we view animals. And I don’t read that in these statements.
I believe the head of the company when he said this decision was “long and thought out” and that it was “very personal.” I believe him when he stated that he and his family have known most of the elephants their entire lives. But I suspect they only knew these elephants as a means to an end; as commodities. Never for just what they were: animals with their own needs, desires, habits, and personalities. If the owners of Feld Entertainment truly had a change of heart and made the decision to remove elephants from their shows because they honestly wanted what was best for the elephants, this would have happened ages ago. This kind of change – the kind I read about today – is only on the surface. It’s for appearance. It’s business. It’s tokenism, really, evident by the three years they’re going to take to remove the elephants and evident by the use of horses, dogs, and tigers that are still a part of their shows (they’ve also added camels this year).
This story demonstrates three important things to me: one, activism works. Two, the public is coming around to supporting the ban of (certain) live animals in circuses. Three, sometimes just wearing people down works too. But oh, how I wish this company could see the real issue. How I wish they would go and spend time with these elephants in their natural habitat and see them for who they truly are, intelligent beings with complex social structures who don’t deserve to be forced into a life that they have no choice in. No human would want that – why do we assume animals would? What is it about our culture and our mindset that we continue to see animals as nothing more than property?
I wish the owners could see what they’re missing. And what they’ve been a part of. I wish they could understand that they are just reacting and not actually changing.
This makes you want to sign a petition doesn’t it? I knew it! Here’s one for you: an elephant named Mali (nothing to do with the circus) has been held captive in the Philippines since she was three years old after she was taken from her home in Sri Lanka and given to the President as a gift (?!?!??). That was in 1977 and she’s been there ever since. For nearly forty years she’s lived in a concrete cage with no other companionship. A sanctuary in Thailand has offered to take her and pay for her transportation to get there but the Filipino government is refusing. Here’s the petition you can sign to urge the Manila Zoo to set her free. You can read more of Mali’s story here.