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The Greatest Show on Earth!

January 3, 2012
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When I first started researching this post, I thought it would be more dramatic and persuasive if I reported statistics and hard numbers.  You know, the kind advocates usually have to provide to the opposition in order for them to take notice.  But I realized this is degrading, because just a single death or instance of unwarranted suffering is too much.  Enforcing or passing animal welfare laws should not ride on a certain quota of animals being mistreated and abused.

I was also going to provide pictures; startling pictures, taken by those who have seen the abuse first-hand.  But I decided not to do that either.  There are thousands of videos and images that show proof of what is happening. Just Google bullhook, elephants, circus training, Feld Entertainment, Leslie Griffith, Center for Elephant Conservation, etc. You’ll get lots of hits.

What I do think you should know?

  • Asian and African elephants used in circuses are most often captured in the wild
  • Animals, either traveling “on the road” or being housed off-season, receive little or no veterinarian care
  • There is simply no way to use positive reinforcement to get a big cat to jump through a ring of fire; there is simply no way to use positive reinforcement to get an African elephant to stand on its front legs – trainers use negative reinforcement, bullhooks, whips, tight collars, pain, electric prods, fear, isolation, and starvation to get animals to do their “tricks”
  • Except during performance, animals are confined in cages, chained, or shackled, most often in outside pens without temperature control
  • Inspectors cannot follow animals from state to state to ensure the circus remains compliant with the laws provided for the animal’s protections
  • Baby elephants, who in the wild nurse until 5 years of age, are routinely taken from their mothers at 18 months and kept isolated from them

Although many organizations and individuals have brought legal action against some of these circuses, it is very difficult to prevail or even plead a cause of action in the first place.  The Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act, which are the only federal laws in place to protect circus and other exotic animals, cannot be accessed by citizens (individuals or organizations like the ASPCA or Humane Society).  Only the government can bring suit against those not in compliance.

Therein lies the problem; the USDA is the government body responsible for enforcing the laws.  Sadly, they rarely do.  But there is some optimism on this front.  Just this year, Ringling settled with the USDA and agreed to pay $270,000 for violations incurred since 2007 ($10,000 per fine equals 27 violations – and this does not cover abuse, only visible neglect). This is the largest settlement any circus has been forced to pay.

Also optimistically, organizations continue to push the judicial system to the limit by bringing cases and establishing jurisprudence.  Lawyers and advocates are finding ways to bridge the loopholes.  Please read the following legal article about the trials and tribulations of protecting circus elephants (and other animals) under the ESA and AWA.
Emily A. Beverage, Abuse Under the Big Top: Seeking Legal Protection for Circus Elephants After Aspca v. Ringling Brothers, 13 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 155 (2010)

“Ultimately, [the plaintiff’s failure to prevail in ASPCA v Ringling 2009] is a call to action for animal rights lawyers and advocates. . . [it is] clear that alternative strategies for protecting performing elephants are desperately needed.” – Emily A. Beverage

For further information please visit:
ASPCA: Circus Cruelty
Humane Society: Circus Myths
PETA: Circuses

You can also support Animal-Free Circuses

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