Without elephants, the big top will still amaze
CHICAGO — Imagine you’re an animal sleeping quietly in your crate and suddenly you feel yourself being carted down a long hallway, loud music growing closer. The next thing you know you’re yanked out, waved around spasmodically in a cacophony of singing and lights for about a minute and a half, then dropped back into your crate and rolled back to the quiet.
This is what happened to one very large snake during a recent Chicago performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey “Circus XTREME.” And though snakes hardly elicit most people’s sympathy, they seem a fitting metaphor for the circus’s difficult relationship with the animals it showcases.
I found myself under the big top last weekend on my first circus visit in well over a decade. I wanted to see the last tour of the Ringling circus that will include its iconic elephants.
On that score, I was premature. Though Ringling Bros.’ parent company Feld Entertainment made the startling announcement in March that they would finally end their elephant troop in performances, the pachyderms will actually keep working throughout a phase-out that is supposed to be complete by 2018.
Still, I was glad to witness a bona fide end of an era and maybe gain a small bit of understanding about what will be lost once generations of young children are deprived of seeing these huge animals at the circus.
The problem with the elephants’ starring role in the show is that their living conditions never make an appearance in the ring. For those of us in the audience, it was a delight to see the stoic, ashen animals parade into the spotlight wearing their gorgeous headdresses, giving the impression of joyously holding hands as they link tails to trunks.
The elephants seem so serene that it’s easy to tell yourself that they are enjoying themselves as they lie down, roll over, spin in place, do their headstands, kick giant beach balls into the stands and execute their conga line formations. During the performance I attended, an elephant even sported giant headphones while scratching at an oversized turntable.
Interestingly, “education” was a prominent part of the elephant act with the trainers explaining in carefully crafted language that the elephant goads — also known as “bullhooks,” which are used to prod the animals — are employed to “reinforce verbal commands with touch.”
Harmless as that sounds, the horrific conditions in which the elephants and other animals live and travel during their captivity with the circus have been well documented.
Advocates estimate that at least 30 elephants, including four babies, have died since 1992, and there is widespread outrage whenever video footage leaks or news reporting highlights the cruelty. As Feld Entertainment noted in its press release, the circus is responding to “shifting consumer preferences.”
It should consider retiring the other large and exotic animals as well.
The argument about the cruelty of keeping elephants restrained — in addition to harsh training methods and poor medical care —is that they are wild animals that, in nature, roam for miles.
The same can be said of the tigers and camels, neither of which did anything particularly stunning during the performance, aside from sulkily prancing in formation. (The snakes deserve our pity, too.)
The tigers, at least, provided suspense. None of the 15 showcased the day I attended seemed particularly happy to be onstage, and several behaved as though they’d have liked to rip the trainer’s throat open.
Based on my observations, adults’ nostalgia will be the only thing hurt with fewer animals at the circus. As I sat surrounded by babies, toddlers and young children, it was obvious that the animal attention was driven by parents and grandparents yelling “Look at the elephants!” or “Look at the camels!” in their kids’ ears.
The rest of the circus was wonderful. There were aerialists, dancers, contortionists, jugglers, jaw-dropping tightrope walkers and a woman who was shot out of a cannon.
The high-tech lighting effects, emotional musical scoring accompanied by a live band and the modern touches of BMX bike stunt riders, Asian acrobats and trampoline artists were far beyond the spectacles I recall from my own childhood.
There’s no need to worry that the circus won’t be as good without the elephants. Ringling puts on something quite worthy of its slogan “The Greatest Show On Earth,” and it will only be better without the shadow of animal cruelty hanging over it.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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