by Pamelyn Ferdin
“The Circus is Coming to Town” is a saying that used to bring excitement to small town city dwellers, but now with the knowledge of what really goes on “behind the Big Top”, people are thinking twice. Instead of paying money to see the exploitation of animals in circuses, people are choosing “animal free” circuses like Cirque du Soleil and many others who are saying “NO” to the use of exotic animals in traveling circuses. You see, there’s another side to the story of animals in the circus I’d like to address – the animal welfare problem. Everyday life for animals on the road is a very disturbing part of the circus picture.
Consider the elephants. Circuses typically confine these animals with a pair of heavy leg chains front and rear, diagonally opposite. An elephant thus chained cannot even turn in a circle. It’s not unusual for these animals to live in double leg chains all night and day except during performances and when they are on public “display”. Some “lucky” elephants get to spend some time in a small electrified corral, but even those elephants may spend 10 hours or more a day in double leg chains. Aggressive male elephants may have their head and trunk movements restrained with additional chains. Most of us would be outraged to see a dog tethered in that manner. Yet a wild elephant (or even one who is born into captivity), has an immense instinctive need to roam, take mud baths and interact with their own social community.
In nature, elephants sleep only four hours a night and move great distances daily. The confinement of circus animals is meant to prevent incidents of aggression. But the frustration, boredom and loneliness of such confinement is instead, a likely additive to the animals’ motivation for aggression. When I think about the effects of rampaging elephants’ (as has happened in cities world wide) I wonder why traveling animal acts have been tolerated for as long as they have. A visit behind the scenes of traveling circuses can be an eye-opener. One sees tigers kept in cages equivalent to what an airline carrier would be for domestic cats (where the tigers can’t even turn around let alone express their natural behaviors), hippos in tiny containers with scarcely 6 inches of water, and bears with muzzles around their mouths, while harnessed onto the backs of horses. I’ve even watched keepers practicing such inappropriate care techniques as purposely feeding moldy bread to “aid digestion.” I’ve heard trainers describe the aberrant repetitive movements (such as pacing and rocking) often seen in circus animals as a sign of contentment, when in reality it’s the symptoms of complete boredom and isolation in a totally unnatural environment. Many keepers may truly care for the animals, but they sorely lack zoological or behavioral education or training. Then there are caretakers who don’t really care or, worse yet, go out of their way to abuse animals.
The opportunity to dominate the large land mammals like elephants and tigers seems to attract violent behavior. One technique used to dominate an elephant is to wet him down and then repeatedly administer 110-volt shocks to send the animal to its knees. Not only does this torture and terrify the animal, it may prematurely age its brain. Another domination method has been to strike an elephant repeatedly in their most sensitive areas with an item called an “elephant or bull hook.”The elephant “handlers” do this in order to get elephants, who weigh thousands of pounds, to do tricks which are difficult and completely unnatural for them to do. Some circuses say that they train their animals with “hugs” and the “reward system”; this is simply false propaganda meant to soothe an uneducated public.
If we want this world to be a more peaceful and less violent place, if we want to start teaching young children to have compassion and respect for those beings with whom we share the planet yet who are different from us, then we must not take them to places that show these magnificent animals doing stupid and unnatural tricks in ridiculous costumes. This teaches nothing to our children about these animal’s lives or who they truly are and should be.
Please teach your children compassion, not cruelty and choose circuses that have the jugglers, clowns, cotton candy and acrobats, but do not contain the animal suffering of those circuses who use animals.