Shrine Circus 2015: ‘Turn and stand’ for animals

DSCN1227Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

“F—ing dopers!” This invective was snarled in our direction as we stood outside the Adams Center on the University of Montana campus in Missoula one recent April weekend. Inside the Adams Center, the Shrine Circus (produced by the Jordan World Circus) was putting enslaved animals through their miserable paces at the business ends of whips and bullhooks.

“F—ing dopers”? We clutched signs reading “Have a heart for circus animals”; “Cruelty isn’t entertainment: Have compassion”; “Circuses: No fun 4 animals,” and the like. Our assemblage of 22 activists–people who set aside chores and pleasures to show up 53 times over two days and five performances–ranged from a six-year-old to several retirees, some sporting lustrous, silver hair; one was retired from a career in finance, another from federal service. We included a former teacher and a current teacher, an equine rescue volunteer, students, an archeologist, an insurance claims examiner, an adult education specialist, and a case worker in geriatrics. “F—ing dopers”? Really?

Plenty of insults and negative comments came our way, but this goes with the territory–you smile and let them roll off. At the one Saturday performance he attended, the six-year-old’s mom was accused of child abuse (“…making your kid stand out here holding a sign”). This, from a woman herding her own kids inside to witness the very real exploitation and abuse of thinking, feeling, and suffering nonhuman animals. “And you call yourselves Montanans!” growled a guy whose voice dripped with contempt and repugnance.

Reaching out, making a difference

But as always, good things came our way, too. One young woman observed our line of peaceful activists and announced, “This takes courage.”  A number of people revealed–sometimes self-consciously–that they agreed with us. As in years past, many of those then indicated that their presence there just couldn’t be helped–they “had” to attend with children who’d received free tickets in school. The Shriners have special access to school systems and have distributed as many as 16,000 free tickets “from Polson to Darby” in western Montana. I’ve appealed to the Missoula County Public Schools trustees twice, asking them to reconsider their promotion of circus cruelty to the students in their charge.

Two young adult couples walked toward the venue and exchanged greetings with their friend–one of the activists in our line–no doubt getting an eyeful of her large sign (“Cruelty isn’t entertainment: Have compassion”). Moments later they walked past us again–this time heading for the parking lot, calling out to her as they passed: “We changed our minds because you!” We erupted into cheers. The last time circus-goers turned around and left–and let us know it was because of our advocacy–was at the Carson & Barnes circus in July of 2011. (That was also the last time C&B set up shop in Missoula.) Those are highs that stick with you!

A mom and her young adult daughter showed up on the first day, first-time activists at this particular outreach. After introductions, the woman revealed that she had actually attended the circus in 2014, at which time she’d observed our respectful and friendly advocacy. This year, she explained, “I’ve come back to stand with you.” After the first performance, she came back again–and brought another daughter. They returned again–and again. She was present for four out of five performances, an unforeseen appointment delay the only thing keeping her from the fifth.

“What is magnificent about humans is when they decide to turn and stand,” said activist-actor James Cromwell. “If they respond with non-violence on principle and hold their ground, they are really magnificent.”

This piece is dedicated to that woman who turned and stood in such dramatic fashion–from circus-goer to circus activist in the space of a year.  It’s dedicated to those who, at one time or another, sooner or later, younger or older, were willing to face a reality they could simply no longer deny, and so decided to turn and stand for oppressed and exploited animals.

I’m grateful to know and stand with these magnificent people.
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