Circus reveals more about human animal than circus animal

Gene Bernofsky photo, World Wild Film

Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations

Much has been written about circus animal exploitation, and those who care to know, do know. We know about the trauma of capture and separation. The abusive training. The extreme confinement in trailers, cages, and chains–lives so impoverished that animals lose their minds. And the fruit of that suffering: brief minutes in the ring where defeated animals perform unnatural, coerced acts for cheering throngs. We know about the suffering when things go as planned, and the suffering when things go awry.

But this piece is about the other animal–the one who wields the whip and bullhook. The animal who clutches kids with one hand and circus tickets with the other. The animal who profits off the misery of “lesser” beings in the name of charity. In short, the animal who determines the fate of all others.

Welcome to the Shrine Circus

Gene Bernofsky photo, WWFE

The Shrine Circus comes to town quietly. Promotional signs (a pink elephant wearing a fez) are posted here and there, but actual advertising is low-key and short-lived.

Because Shriners have access to school systems in a long-standing tradition, free kids’ tickets are distributed by the thousands; adults then purchase their own. And by the thousands they come to the University of Montana field house–hoards of kids and their families from a wide radius around Missoula.

In the past, one brave young woman made it her business to know when the Shrine Circus would make its run; she’d be there alone, if need be, to hold a “boycott animal circuses” sign. This year, with organizational effort, 24 different individuals–ages six to 60 and beyond–showed up over the course of five performances; as many as 16 were present for two shows.

Gene Bernofsky photo, WWFE

Our signs were non-confrontational: “Have a (heart) for circus animals.” “Cruelty isn’t entertainment…have compassion.” “Sad animals.” “I’d rather die free than live as a slave.” “For their sake, make this your last animal circus.” “Circus: yes! Animal circus: No!” “Animals don’t enjoy circuses.” “Charity is no excuse for animal abuse.” One woman read this last sign, proclaimed, “I want you to know that I don’t agree” and walked away.

Circus-goers: “Don’t challenge my assumptions”

A woman approached with an almost tearfully-delivered story about a child who was burned from head to foot, accrued hospital costs of a million dollars, was treated and saved at a Shriners hospital. That’s awesome, we told her, but the circus she was attending didn’t raise money for any hospital (and no claims were made that it did). According to the poster, “Proceeds benefit the Western Montana Shrine Club. Contributions are not deductible as charitable donations.” And according to a New York Times investigative piece from 2005, 98% of Shriners hospitals’ operating income comes from endowments.

Still, she insisted that this child was alive because of the hospital and how could we protest that?!? (She knew what she knew and would not be swayed by the facts.) We aren’t opposed to circuses, we clarified–just animals in the circus. But no, she continued, this was the best way to raise money for the hospital. Besides, she didn’t want to be bothered by constant phone calls asking for donations when she could just attend the circus!

We observed that the vast majority of circus-goers prefer the “drive-by” method of insult delivery–shooting zingers and walking off. At the Saturday afternoon performance, when mobs of people were backed up and moving at snail’s pace past our demonstration line, scarcely a word was offered. There was no quick escape.

Not that any of us expected to feel the love. “Are you people serious?” “Get a life!” “You’re crazy, the animals live better than I do!” “Dirty hippies!”  One dad, holding his two-year-old, gave us the finger behind the child’s back while other kids looked on. A mom loudly instructed, “They don’t have jobs so they protest instead.” One male, puffing a cigarette on the tobacco-free campus, took great delight in telling us about the double burger he had just eaten…as if anyone cared.

We smiled and tried to take the high road, most of us understanding that this was the place not for confrontation or displays of ego, but to plant the seed of doubt about the treatment of circus animals. Should it take root, this seed might grow and blossom into compassion and a sense of justice–if not in the parent, perhaps in the child.

And the children provided the most poignant moments. Those old enough to read the signs did so, some mouthing the words to themselves, some methodically moving along our line to read each one, sometimes with knitted brows, sometimes struggling to fully comprehend. I would hazard to guess that, for most, this was a new idea: Circus animals aren’t willing participants. Circus animals don’t have fun.

Two mothers actually covered their children’s eyes, one telling her daughter, “Don’t look, you’ll feel bad,” the other verbally laying into her son when he looked anyhow.  “Keep walking, Brittany,” another mom admonished her curious daughter–urgency in her voice. Brittany turned away and kept walking.

But there were also the heart-warming few. One mom slowly read each sign to her questioning child. Another kneeled down to explain, “These people disagree with how the animals are treated in the circus, and they have a right to stand here and say so.” A woman approached us to express her sincere confusion; she still planned to attend, she said, but would research the issue afterwards. We were happy to provide her with a “Break the Chain” flyer from Animal Defenders International. I’m betting she won’t return next year.

A young dad read I’d rather die free than live as a slave and agreed with an emphatic “True THAT!” He read every sign–told us he once saw an elephant being hit with a bullhook. “But I’m only one person,” he said as he walked toward the entrance. “And you’re only…” he trailed off, looking back at our line of 16, a stark contrast to the hundreds pouring into the Adams Center.

Intimidation. Name-calling. A racial insult.

Gene Bernofsky photo

A couple of clowns decided to harass us.  One got in our faces and didn’t back off. It had a nightmarish, Invasion of the Clown Car Body-Snatchers quality to it. We peacefully stood our ground until she finally took her bobble eyelashes and aqua ‘fro and sauntered off. A “constable” approached the young woman near me–an Asian-American college student exercising her First Amendment right on her own campus. “What’s wrong with using animals?” the constable demanded. She politely responded, adding, “Elephants don’t even belong here! They belong in Africa…and Asia.” Looking her squarely in the face, he replied, “A lot of things ought to go back to Africa and Asia.” None of us saw that coming, but she handled it with poise and dignity, informing him that his remark was offensive and asking him to leave–repeatedly.

A Shriner in a “Motor Patrol” jacket accosted us with a sneering, “I suppose you’re for Obama, too. I suppose you’re pro-Muslim!” (An ironic “insult,” given the Shriners’ history as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. The first Shrine temple ever established was the Mecca Temple.) His rant ended with “…kill ’em all” but by then we had tuned him out and didn’t know to whom or what he referred. Another Shriner treated us to a bitter diatribe, his coup de gras, “What a bunch of losers!” So much for benevolence. But then there was the Shriner who gave us two thumbs-up–hands held close against his torso to avoid detection.

Photo lightened to reveal dog

The Western Montana Shrine Club contracts with the Jordan World Circus, an outfit that has not renewed its U.S. Department of Agriculture exhibitor’s license (whether due to violations or not is unclear). Jordan now leases its animals from other exhibitors, most with their own USDA violations. Jordan circled the wagons–or semi-trailers–behind the Adams Center for its stint in Missoula, the animals carefully hidden from view. Only one trailer was open and visible; it held a cage and the cage held a dog.

Imagine spending your life in a barren cage inside a trailer, standing in your own waste. Imagine being chained in concrete parking lots in one town after another. This comes only after often-abusive training sessions with bullhooks and whips, restraints and prods. Imagine being uncaged and unchained just long enough to perform meaningless, demeaning stunts you learned through intimidation and pain.

Imagine knowing that 24 people came to your defense, but 24,000 came for your show.

The animal whose hand brandishes the whip, whose hand signs the circus contract, whose hand clutches the tickets and covers the children’s eyes…is the same animal whose hand holds the sign revealing the truth about the tragic lives of circus animals.

“Even if you are a minority of one,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “the truth is the truth.”
Photo credits (all but dog): Gene Bernofsky, World Wide Film Expedition

28 Responses

  1. “Imagine knowing that 24 people came to your defense, but 24,000 came for your show.”

    Wow..That’s a powerful and revealing line , shedding unfortunate light on where we are right now in our humanity.

    Great article. I’m going to pass this on.

    I wrote an article on my blog trying to dissuade my readers, if any were planning, on attending circuses. It’s not nearly as eloquent as yours, but if you feel like checking it out, here’s the link:

  2. @Kathleen: May I take the liberty of inserting a word? In the first graph, it should read: “…the rotten fruit of that suffering”! … Observation: If the circus-goers didn’t feel good ‘n’ guilty, they would have no reason to turn away, cover their children’s eyes, and shout epithets. … I’ve just learned another great Gandhism: “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” … A superb article from top to bottom. … I appreciated all the well-researched, reinforcing links you supplied.

    @Jessica: Your blog is beautiful! It does my heart good to know that a Christian is fighting animal abuse, and in a Christly manner. As someone who grew up in Connecticut, I extra appreciated your sentiments. … Perhaps a protest sign could read: “Not criticizing, just educating” or “Educating your children in what cruelty looks like?” … I like how you turned your question around here: “Who am I to say going to the circus is wrong? Well, I suppose I could turn that around and ask those who go year after year why they think it is so right?” … Thanks for the reminder about egocentric/ethnocentric/worldcentric. Perhaps the latter should be called world-encompassing!

  3. […] Full story Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  4. Thank you for this post. The Shrine Circus is the only circus that visits my small city, but as I understand it is a major event among our citizens. Very disheartening…

  5. Very excellent article Kathleen. Well done.

  6. I don’t agree AR ideology, or the premise that humans are simply or only another species of animal. However, you have made a strong case for why animals should not be used for circus entertainment.

  7. If you don’t “believe” in A/R justice, then think of growing the ethics of humans to rise above exploitation which effects negatively animals and humans.

  8. […] als wir Menschen und leben in Freiheit und als gleichberechtige Spezies – und müssen dennoch im Zirkus dumme “Kunststücke” zur “Erheiterung” von Menschen […]

  9. Thank you Other Nations – For holding the signs, that bare the truth, that light the way to an end to this absurd injustice. Of all the ridiculous ways we use animals… Truly the circus and rodeos are the most indefensible as it’s horrible cruelty masked as child-like play. It’s a vulgar, brutal lie.

  10. Excellent and well written!

  11. Its amazing what people will do for money…exploiting animals is probably the lowest of the low!

  12. These sick greedy bastards needs to set the angels free so they can be happy!

  13. Here is my problem with this issue. From what I am getting it sounds like from your perspective it doesn’t really matter how the animals are treated you have a problem with animals being used period. I like watching the circus animals therefore do not have a problem with them being used. I do however care very much how they are treated. I went to a Ringling Brothers circus years ago and was saddened by the protesters. I had however already purchased my ticket so I went and saw a wonderful show. My sister and I at the end of the show went to see how the animals are actually treated. I saw where the animals stayed, their trailers, cages, etc. These animals at least at this circus are very well treated there is air conditioning, fans, padding in their trailers for their hooves or paws. One of the trainers who trained several different types of animals took the time to speak with my sister and I. At one point he very quickly put his open hand up to a llamas face and the llama didn’t even flinch. After that display he patted his pet on the head. An abused animal would minimally flinch and possibly cower.

    Everyone has a right to their opinion please don’t take my response as demeaning of your view in any way. However, please be honest about what you are protesting. You are not protesting the treatment of the animals you are protesting the animals being used.

  14. Tiffany, there’s no dishonesty here. Animal exploitation is just that, and it runs the gamut from depriving an animal of the ability to pursue his or her own life to outright physical abuse. Circuses engage in both. Put yourself in their place for a moment. Elephant herds, lion prides, etc.–these are social animals, just like humans. They build complex, often lifelong relationships and love their young. Supposing someone wrenched you away from your mom and family when you were a toddler, kept you confined and isolated, and forced you to perform unnatural stunts? Wouldn’t you consider that to be exploitation–even if they treated you well? Why should it be so different for them?

    Perhaps the crux of your comment is this: “I like watching the circus animals therefore do not have a problem with them being used.” For those who protest the use/treatment of animals in circuses, it’s not a matter of what *we* like–it’s simply not about us at all. It’s about speaking up for those who can’t do it for themselves. Animals lead emotional lives and have needs, desires, and their own interests–just like us. Enslaving them for any reason–in this case, for fleeting amusement that makes money–is wrong.

    Since it’s clear that you do care how they’re treated (at least physically), I urge you to watch ADI’s latest video–it will be 8 minutes well worth your time. ADI has over 20 years experience investigating circus animal abuse, and backs up their findings with captive wildlife research.

    Think about it: When has anyone seen a wild elephant stand on her head, a bear ride a bicycle, a tiger jump through fire–in the wild? What do you suppose it takes to get animals to do these unnatural things? It takes negative reinforcement. The crack of the whip in the ring is just a reminder of the fear and/or pain associated with the lessons.

    I don’t take your comment as demeaning of my view and I thank you for expressing yours. But I do reiterate–there’s no dishonesty here. I’ll leave you with this, from Big Cat Rescue:

    “In circus programs and on Web sites, the industry reassures the public it uses positive reinforcement on the animals. Yet, during shows, audiences watch as big-cat trainers crack whips while cats do tricks. Elephants are accompanied by men with bullhooks, sticks with sharp metal hooks on one end. No matter how they’re marketed, whips and hooks are not positive reinforcement. They serve as continual reminders to the animals of what could happen if they don’t comply.”‘positive-reinforcement’-doesn’t-come-from-whips/

  15. great job guys we need to spread the word and stand up for these poor animals!!!! How brave you are kathleen and amazing! xo

  16. I was thinking of taking my daughter to the shriner circus in Madison, WI just today, it would have been her first time. I had some doubts about the animal treatment and after doing some research and reading some articles like yours, I changed my mind. Thanks!

  17. Reblogged this on "OUR WORLD".

  18. Kevin, you are THE MAN!!!…a million thanks for caring enough to follow up on your doubts and for raising a compassionate child. I hope you’ll spread the word to friends and family. You can find more info on the Other Nations ‘circus animal exploitation’ page

    and if you scroll clear to the bottom, you can free Leo the Lion from the cowardly lion tamers–it’s a fun game!

    Thanks to you, too, Nancy, for reblogging.

  19. Some children don’t like circuses. Perhaps they have an innate sense of equity and cruelty. I pinned, tweeted, and scooped your post.
    Thank you.

  20. Kevin, I hope your daughter realizes what an honorable, wise, decent, ethically sound dad she has in you! The “K” in your name stands for “Kind”! 🙂

    It’s soooooo important these days to think for ourselves, isn’t it! To question authority, to look under the mask, the find out the truth behind the promotion of every supposedly harmless activity and product.

    Taking a few moments to care — or, put another way, caring enough to take a few moments to do some digging — is the only attitude that, frankly, is going to save our planet.

    I’m sure the elephants of the world would hug you with their trunks if they could!

    Blessings upon all elephant-respecting heads.

  21. I’m glad you’re helping people know what’s actually going on when they go to the circus. Last year I went and watched and I though it was cool but now that I’ve done more research about circus animal care I will never go again!

  22. Gosh, this is the post that just keeps on giving…good for you, Alina! Many thanks to everyone who followed up on misgivings, who shared your thoughts, who shared this post, who has acted (or will act) to reach others with the truth about circus cruelty. The 2014 Shrine Circus came to Missoula two weekends ago–I’m happy to say that attendance appeared to be noticeably down. The two days of circus performances immediately preceded Missoula’s International Wildlife Film Festival, which opens with a “WildWalk” parade to celebrate wild animals. I couldn’t resist commenting on the irony…

  23. It’s really heartbreaking to see these animals tortured and paraded just for the sake of our entertainment.

  24. I think there are many who don’t read these things on internet or don’t surf at all much very few people really read all these blogs especially educated people only rest watch television. So I think we need to start showing these things on television show quite frequently and for all the animal abuses not only done by circus organizers but also these “Animal Planet” and *Nat Geo* channel staffs very forcefully they catch animals to show on TV very badly they torture to run the show.

  25. I agree, siddharth…these topics need to reach a wider audience. That’s why we’ve stood outside the circus venue for the past five years with signs and information…we’ve reached thousands that way, though many minds weren’t open to the message. One hopes to plant a seed of doubt, at the very least. Yes, television would reach so many more. Many thanks for your comment, and to each and every one of you who has contributed to this post over the past 3+ years. Namaste.

  26. NONE OF THE PROCEEDS FROM SHRINE CIRCUS TICKET SALES GOES TO CHARITY. IT SAYS SO ON EACH TICKET. The purchase price is NOT tax-deductible aka does not go to charity. Any shriner arguing otherwise should be ASHAMED! It is DISGUSTING and INEXCUSABLE to LIE to the public about helping sick and dying kids. That money is POCKETED. I encourage everyone to do some research on the Shriners. They’re FRAUDS!!

  27. hhihihihi

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