'Greatest Show on Earth?' I Don't Think So

Peninsula Humane Society prepares for the circus.

One of my roles for PHS/SPCA is media spokesperson, and I’m going to scoop myself.  Within the next week or so, many Bay Area animal shelters and animal welfare agencies are going to issue a group news release calling for a public boycott of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, scheduled to perform in San Jose, the Cow Palace in Daly City, Oakland and Sacramento in the coming weeks.  

It comes down to this. Organizations that care for animals can’t stand by without “calling out” this circus for using animals as performers, given what happens behind the scenes. Trainers often use whips, bullhooks, electric prods and other painful tools to force animals to perform tricks. And, when not performing (which is most of the time, and includes time between shows and time traveling between venues), animals are kept in cramped cages for days at a time with little monitoring. Circuses have long been suspected of training animals through such coercive means as beating and whipping elephants on the head, face, ears and trunk. Shockingly and sadly, laws and regulations offer circus animal minimal protection.

The soon-to-be-released statement from the animal welfare groups will further explain that circuses with performing animals send the wrong message to kids, since the animals used in these shows are not meant to be exploited for entertainment purposes and their natural lives are nothing like the lives they have as circus performers. Bears don’t ride tricycles, tigers don’t jump through rings of fire and elephants don’t balance on one leg for kicks.

I went to the circus as a kid. In fact, I’m sure it was at the Cow Palace.  This was close to 40 years ago. We didn’t know as much then, didn’t ask many questions, and didn’t have nearly as many entertainment options. We went to movies (I got to skip a day of school to see Star Wars at the Coronet Theater in SF); we saw the Globetrotters when they rolled into town; we went to Giants’ games and could buy box seats on game days for $6 back when the Giants were far from the Greatest Show on Earth, and went to the Sport & Boat Show each year (also at the Cow Palace), and I’m pretty sure we got those tickets for free from our neighbor. 

These days, families who want their kids to enjoy a circus-type environment or event have options that don’t involve the exploitation of animals and are sure to amaze their kids just as much. There’s the Pickle Family Circus, for one, or Circ du Soleil if you can afford to drop a few more bucks.

For now, it appears we’re stuck with the outdated circus.  They, no doubt, will promote the heck out of it, and talk about how much the animals love performing for appreciative crowds. I’ve talked to a former elephant trainer and knew a former clown (who’s still a pretty funny guy) and know that their PR machine is pure spin.

My organization won’t have the kind of showing you might expect from an angry animal welfare group. We won’t be there picketing, for example, or accosting families as they arrive.  Shock value isn’t our deal. We don’t throw red paint on people wearing furs and don’t wave posters showing abused animals at 8-year-old kids. This isn’t our style.

But, we will have a presence when Ringling Bros. rolls into the Cow Palace, beginning with monitoring animals as they enter the venue. And, we will have a presence for the remainder of their time at the Cow Palace. Our trained humane investigators (we have two and they are fully funded by donations) will have access anywhere on the property where animals are being kept or shown. When evaluating animal enclosures, we will check to ensure each animal has access to shade and clean drinking water.  On hot days, our investigators will get a temperature reading from the ground to make sure it is not too hot for the animals to stand on. 

With the elephants, specifically, we will ask their handlers to lift each foot, and then photograph the bottoms to ensure they are free of large cracks and abscesses. Bullhooks are widely used by elephant handlers.  Use of this tool in and of itself is not legally considered animal abuse, but circus trainers may be cited if the tool is misused. Because elephants are rarely abused with a bullhook in the public’s eye, our investigators look for signs of abuse, including abscesses or swelling behind the shoulders, ears and at the base of the tail.  Elephants should be watered at least every one to two hours and washed down at least once daily. 

We sure hope we don’t see anything, but we’ll be there looking.





Madeline Bolbol August 04, 2011 at 10:44 PM
Enjoyed reading the good news that PHS/SPCA will be calling for a public boycott of Ringling! I have never been to a circus in my lifetime......hope and pray for the day when circuses will be extinct!
Phyllis McArthur August 05, 2011 at 09:11 PM
Scott, I have never taken my child to the circus. What I did take her to many years ago was Marine World Africa USA when it was right here on the peninsula. There was an "act" with an elephant and a chimp, my husband and were horrified. Why? Not because we thought there might be abuse (Although thinking back now there probably was) We thought it was sad to see a mighty beast and a small mammal doing tricks for a few peanuts. Are we wrong to think that? To take an animal out of it's habitat to perform like that, then caged until the next act is cruel
Austin Choi August 05, 2011 at 11:41 PM
Good article. It was horrifying when years ago, cameras caught how elephants were being abused and beaten by their trainers. For that alone, the circus should be avoided. But what about the horse races? The piglet races and/or pony rides at some of these county fairs? or even horse carriage rides at Disneyland? People still participate in these activities yet I'm sure the animals didn't want to be there.
Janet Locke August 06, 2011 at 06:40 AM
To my shame, I took my kids to the circus 24 years ago. The youngest one fell asleep and the older one was unimpressed. It is not a sacrifice to stay away from circuses, and unless we stop supporting them, animals will keep being used and abused for lame "entertainment."
Phyllis McArthur August 07, 2011 at 11:57 PM
Don't feel bad Janet, My family took me to the circus once whe I was very young. I remember that it was smelly, hot, and the food was greasy. That's all. What is shocking to me is that this type of "entertainment" is still sanctioned by the state, and federal government.


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