Earlier this month The Ringling Brothers Circus announced its plans to retire all of its performing elephants by May of 2016 — more than a year ahead of schedule. While the announcement brings both relief and concern — mainly on account of the retirement facility in Florida the elephants will be moved to — the question remains: why are we still participating in these kinds of archaic practices?
Just Google “Ringling Brothers animal acts” and your search page will fill up with headlines like “12 Things Ringling doesn’t want you to know,” “Urge Ringling Bros to Stop Cruel Elephant acts NOW,” and a link to a website entirely devoted to the circus’ cruelty (ringlingbeatsanimals.com). PETA has live tweeted Ringling shows, snapping photos of lions sitting on chairs, elephants posing on top of each other, and tigers in tiny cages with the hashtag #LiveAtRingling and #BoycottTheCircus, and enough people have supported these kinds of causes to make some changes in the industry. Documentaries like Blackfish, The Cove, and — for the really brave — Earthlings, have pushed the save-the-whales-type movements into the mainstream, pressuring the animal entertainment industry and highlighting our own involvement in animal cruelty.
But the problem with animal entertainment doesn’t end with the Ringling Bros long overdue decision. Every weekend people herd themselves into Sea Lion’s Rock at West Ed for one of the three afternoon shows, making me wonder how far we’ve come from bear-baiting after all. Although many circuses, zoos, and the like claim they treat their animals well — The Ringling Bros has a separate website devoted to their elephant conservation centre — the problem is not the “treatment,” it’s the idea behind the whole industry. Watch Blackfish and you’ll hear from half a dozen ex-Sea World employees who genuinely loved and cared for the animals they trained, proving that animal cruelty isn’t just about bull hooks and cosmetic testing, it’s about removing living creatures from their natural habitat simply because we want to be entertained by them.
Animal acts reinforce Tolstoy’s claim that “as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields” — not because killing animals and people are synonymous, but because the idea that humans can exert their authority over “lesser species’” leads to all kinds of brutality.
While I recognize animals that have grown up in captivity cannot simply be released back into the wild, we should contemplate the reason we have so many animals in captivity in the first place. Whether or not we try to justify the animal entertainment industry with claims like, “Well, we can’t just throw them back into the wild,” the problem remains that we continue to create a demand for animal entertainment that won’t go away until we choose to relinquish our claim to dominion over anything and everything on earth. But the desire for the exotic, for knowledge, and most of all power, fuels an industry that should have been eradicated decades ago.