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The Ringling Brothers Circus
Has PETA's Media Coverage Been Unfair to 'The Greatest Show on Earth'?
Even as a child, I was always afraid of the circus. The clowns with their frozen, manic expressions and noisy high jinks were never to be trusted. (Just ask Stephen King.) I wasn't coulrophobic, but pretty close. The alarming rumors concerning how exotic animals such as my favorite Asian elephants are regularly abused were a far greater concern. This has since been largely due to the media negativity from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that focuses on Ringling Brothers. PETA certainly doesn't clown around when it comes to their hatred of this circus.
So you can imagine my reservations when a good friend invited me to see "The Greatest Show on Earth" perform at the TD Garden Fleet Center in Boston. That day was full of surprises. I reluctantly accepted my friend's invitation and, thanks to a friend of my friend, we were also invited backstage before the show began. Initially, I thought of declining the backstage invitation; we were the only visitors, and my rumor-driven imagination was conjuring up Jumanji images of chaos and frightened animals running amok. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I was thankful we decided to spend that time in the wings. As a result of seeing much of what goes on behind the scenes, how well these animals are treated and meeting performers and staff, I sat through the entire show with both appreciation and delight.
When we first passed through the doors of the huge backstage area, we could not only smell the animals, but the odors of fresh straw, hay and produce that assaulted the senses. I was amazed – and yes, a little shocked -- to see the well-organized and efficient manner with which everything was handled. (We should send some of these people to Washington.) I also met one of the clowns -- in human form without makeup -- and am happy to report to my almost-coulrophobic friends that he was truly a delightful fellow. I was particularly impressed with the warm, friendly professionalism of the veterinarians, trainers and other staff members. You could clearly see the concern and affection they have for their animals, and the care and trust these animals have for them in return.
We first visited the tigers and learned that one of the older cats had been recently taken to a nearby veterinarian teaching hospital to remove an abscessed tooth. (You don't get that kind of care in the bush.) My jaw literally dropped when the trainer bent down near the opening of the bars to a huge enclosure and talked softly to one of the cats as if she were a kitten. We later learned that the trainer signals these tigers to snarl and roar while performing in the ring. A good trainer will keep a close eye on their animals’ body language to anticipate what they may do before they actually do it. Animals -- domestic or otherwise -- can feed off of our moods and sense when something is amiss...this is especially true with cats.
The next stop on our unofficial tour was a large area where a number of portable, paddock-like structures were set up to house the horses that performed in the show. These were not small or cramped stalls; they were roomy areas laden with fresh straw. Some of the horses came right up to me, and I was able stroke their necks without hesitation. They were healthy, well-fed and groomed, and had room to stretch and get a bit of exercise. I was surprised to see the grooms immediately clean any area the horses soiled and replace it with fresh straw.
We then proceeded to another section in the vast facility where I was anxious to see my favorite exotics, the Asian elephants. We found the females strolling about a huge rectangular-shaped exercise area. No guys -- just the gals. The adult males, or bulls, usually do not perform in the circus. They can be very aggressive with the females and injure them…especially, when they are in the throes of breeding musth. Males also fight amongst themselves so it is safer to maintain a post-puberty gender distance. Unlike male Asian elephants, most females do not have external tusks and are very familial and social. In the wild, family groups usually consist of a matriarch, sisters, aunts, mothers, daughters and infant males. Tragically, their numbers have been dramatically reduced by poachers and the destruction of their natural habitats.
Ringling makes an effort to exercise and socialize their elephants at every opportunity while traveling. These elephants also spend time at Ringling’s 200-acre Elephant Conservation and Research Center in Florida where most of them retire. At the Boston Fleet Center, they co-mingled with other elephants freely. There were small logs and other objects they could use as toys. The area's perimeter was filled with fresh hay. When I asked the veterinarian about the huge bins of fresh produce being wheeled about, she explained that after performing for several minutes in the ring, the elephants are always treated to one of their favorite mixtures of apples, whole grains and other produce. (I can tell you, firsthand, this produce is fresher than what we plebeians are offered at the supermarket.)
As the elephant trainer walked toward us, his charges started to follow him alongside the area perimeter. We laughed and pointed to the large fan club gathering behind him. He turned to look back, laughed good-naturedly and held up his hand to quietly motion them to stop. The ladies immediately came to a dutiful halt but looked after him as if to ask, “Where are you going?” I noticed that none of these animals formed a defensive position or looked in the least bit threatened. Elephants are also very tactile. In the exercise area, they would sometimes touch each other with their trunks or foreheads as if expressing friendship and affection.
Remember the grooms who kept the paddocks clean? In the elephant’s area, whenever one started to relieve herself, a groom would quietly rush up and hold a large bucket beneath her to catch as much as he could and as quickly as possible. What little actually did hit the floor, he instantly covered with a dry, non-toxic substance that was absorbent and swept up into the bucket as well. He repeated this floor cleaning process until the area was spotless. The elephants didn’t give him a second glance; it was as if this rather unique concierge service was expected and very routine. They nonchalantly munched on their hay or ambled away when they had both completed their respective tasks.
Seeing these beautiful and sensitive creatures up close, one is immediately struck by their intelligence. There's a lot going on behind those expressive eyes. The trainer invited us inside the perimeter where we were introduced to an older elephant I will refer to in this article as “Audrey.” We stood close to her as we stroked her trunk, and she was kind enough to pose for photos. Audrey, we learned, is a bit of a diva. She likes to paint pictures by holding a brush with her trunk and painting forms on a blank canvass, but can become a little annoyed when another female does the same. Audrey is rather territorial when it comes to her art and doesn’t like to share the limelight -- or the rewards.
By the way, these elephants were all “au naturel,” meaning none of them were in costume. I didn’t see any "wonder dust" anywhere or any injuries. Elephants are surprising agile considering their substantial girth. They are cat-nappers, and lay down on their sides when they sleep for brief periods, sporadically, throughout the evening and/or at intervals during the day. In the wild, they stand up on their hind legs while leaning their front legs on the trunks of the trees to reach higher growing vegetation.
The majority of Ringling’s elephants do not perform or travel with the circus and remain at their home at the 200-acre center. Only elephants that demonstrate both the temperament and inclination to perform and travel actually do, and only if there is a spot available. These elephants know dozens of words and commands. Trainers/handlers often talk to them as a form of reassurance and comfort while in the ring or during their elephant walks.
Getting our domestic animals to do what we want doesn’t always run like clockwork. For example, when my cat is in one of her very rare, sulky moods, she will jump on the living room coffee table she knows is off limits. If I say, “no,” a word she knows quite well, she’ll look at me with her “what’s the big problem eyes” and refuse to budge. I have no intention of rewarding this behavior with the usual strokes and cuddles. So, I lightly pat her behind with a couch pillow to remind her that coffee table squatting is a big no-no, and off she goes. This isn’t possible when dealing with several tons of elephant.
Ringling trainers/handlers use the bull hook guide (ankus) that has been utilized for centuries in India. These are guides, not weapons of torture. Abuse is as intolerable as it is unusual, and the perpetrator can face serious consequences from Ringling. The first rule in good training or handling is that there should be no pain automatically associated with it unless you want to risk ending up with a full-grown elephant that may be a constant, untrustworthy and uncompromising threat. Anyone who says otherwise is some kind of nut. Training is based on the reward system.
Is Ringling the perfect world for these beloved pachyderms? What world is for this endangered species? In the wild, elephants migrate or wander in search for water and food in lands that can barely sustain them in a rapidly changing world. They face dangers from droughts, man, disease and even themselves. Tigers are a continuing threat to the Asian elephant calves. On preserves or sanctuaries, they can face different sets of rules that have included culling or killing as well as breeding impediments to circumvent overpopulation. Nor are they provided with extensive medical and research facilities. The key to their survival is educating people to be aware of elephants as an important natural resource and cultural treasure.
The Ringling of today is certainly a far cry from the Water for Elephants days, and is not the “death circus” that routinely beats their animals PETA portrays through the media. Far from it. Unfortunately, these negative stories get repeated from one media outlet to another. Equally disconcerting is the fact that the media rarely reports anything about Ringling’s proactive involvement in animal conservation and care, or as the co-founder of the International Elephant Foundation that is committed to positive change for the facilitation of elephant conservation and protection. Here again, it appears the media hype echoes that industry's tried and true adage that headlines sell better if they are fraught with negativity and drama. .
In accordance with the Endangered Species and Animal Welfare Acts, the US Dept. of Agriculture makes routine, unannounced inspections on a regular basis to ensure that circuses like Ringling are operating in compliance with established standards. These Acts protect certain animals from inhumane treatment or neglect. Compliance failures result in the exhibitor’s inability to either obtain and/or renew the mandatory licensing. If Ringling had failed these inspections, they wouldn’t be exhibiting and I wouldn’t be writing this article. Only last year, Ringling won a lawsuit that allegedly accused them of abusing their elephants. In 2006, PETA lost their lawsuit alleging that Ringling had conspired to infiltrate and harm their operations.
Don't get me wrong; I’m an animal lover who happens to support PETA’s more positive aspirations. Standards must be maintained and animal cruelty should never be tolerated. However, PETA’s and other animal activists’ goals to prohibit horses from being be bridled, saddled or ridden; abolish all zoos and animals in circuses; and drain the pools and tanks at Sea World are collectively extreme. That being said, PETA should give credit where credit is due, and not attempt to deliberately paint a false and grotesque picture of Ringling in order to achieve these goals. Audrey wouldn’t like it...and neither should we.
In the final analysis, I believe PETA does a great injustice to the Ringling staff members who genuinely care about these animals: Those veterinarians, trainers, handlers and other animal stewards who love and understand them, and devote much of their lives to their care, protection and conservation. I only wish others could see what I have observed, and know what I have learned and continue to discover about these caring and dedicated professionals. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves that ethical treatment not only applies to animals; it applies to people as well.
© 2011 Genna East All Rights Reserved
Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation
- Center for Elephant Conservation
"Animal protectionists are working hard in Southeast Asia to protect the Asian elephants dwindling natural habitats and prevent the ever-growing conflicts between elephants and humans as they compete for space and resources."
International Elephant Foundation
- International Elephant Foundation
"IEF supports conservation, education and research of the worlds elephants with a commitment to affect positive change through the facilitation of elephant conservation and sound scientific investigation resulting in the protection of elephants..."