Running away to join the circus! What a call to liberation–beckoning kids for generations. An escape to freedom from nagging parents, onerous chores, meaningless homework. Restless adults still hear that siren song—now merely an escape fantasy—and imagine leaving the past behind and starting over as someone new.
While the human version is all about free will and freedom, for other species—whether captured from the wild or bred into captivity—the circus means bondage. Captured animals are abducted away from everything good and natural—family, home, accustomed diet, comfortable routine. Chained or caged (some once roamed 30 and more miles a day!), they’re transported a world away, forced to start life anew in slavery. Captive-bred animals, never having experienced the life nature intended, know only the exploitation: abuse, crushing boredom, perpetual confinement. One wonders if they aren’t the “luckier” of the two.
They face abusive handlers and onerous (sometimes brutal) training regimens learning to do demeaning, meaningless stunts. Rather than long rambles, leisurely dust baths, and companionship at the watering hole, their days now feature sharp bullhooks, stinging whips, binding muzzles, electric prods. Even elephant calves are not spared this treatment; photo documentation shows babies in chains, in ropes, forced to the ground, shocked with prods, controlled with bullhooks. (Contrary to common perception, elephant skin is sensitive enough to feel the landing of a fly!) Hurting and confused, spirits broken, they give over to despair. They learn to do handstands, pirouettes, to jump through hoops and ride bicycles for their 10-minute performance.
Bolivia has banned circus animal acts; Britain and Greece are poised to do so. Former game show host and animal activist Bob Barker, who aided in the rescue of circus lions from Bolivia, said this: “Circuses are no place for animals, and lions and tigers should not be forced to live in small cages on the backs of trucks, or elephants forced to live in chains in the name of entertainment. I commend the Bolivian Government for taking this progressive step and hope that other South American countries, and indeed the USA, will follow suit.” Ending the cruelty doesn’t mean ending the circus tradition. Cirque du Soleil is the most famous—but only one of many—animal-free circuses. But we have to demand them as the compassionate alternative.
The circus is coming to town! If we choose to go, let’s remember the heavy and tragic price paid by animals for brief moments of amusement. Children who attend won’t learn anything educational about animals, but perceptive kids might come to some unhappy conclusions about the human species. Remember that painful, behind-the-scenes training had to occur to force intelligent, self-willed individuals to perform unnatural stunts. Remember that, when the circus is over and we return to our comfortable homes, circus animals return to chains, cages, and transport trailers.
And remember that the worthy cause of raising money for disabled and injured children need not rely on animal exploitation and abuse, and never, ever should. I have no doubt that kids—even those who stand to benefit from a charity circus—would say “this is wrong” upon witnessing what happens to animals just beyond the Big Top. More adults should find the courage and compassion to do the same.