Will Ringling’s closure clear the way for federal circus legislation?

Delcianna J. Winders, Academic Fellow, Animal Law & Policy Program, Harvard Law School

The piece originally appeared in The Hill

With Ringling Bros.—the most active and spendthrift opponent of legislation to protect circus animals—shuttering, it may finally be possible for bipartisan public safety and animal welfare efforts to succeed.

Introduced by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Ryan Costello (R-Pa.),  the Traveling Exotic Animal & Public Safety Protection Act, H.R. 6342, would ban traveling wild animal acts given their risks to humans and animals alike. While political debates rage, this simple, important measure—one that countries across the world have already taken—should be a no-brainer.

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The recent incident in which long-time Ringling Bros. exhibitor Vicenta Pages was attacked by a tiger in front of dozens of children is just the most recent reminder of the dangers inherent in these acts. Captive big cats kill about one person every year in America, and injure many more. While Ringling—whose tigers have been involved in numerous maulings—is closing down, other circuses will continue to endanger the public as long as they’re allowed to. Tigers have repeatedly escaped from UniverSoul Circus and at least two people have lost parts of their fingers to big cats with this circus. A Shrine circus attendee came face to face with a tiger in the restroom. At another Shrine circus, a tiger killed a circus handler in front of 200 children. Numerous folks have been rushed to the hospital after encounters with tigers at Shrine circus shows. Yet government records show that exhibitors with UniverSoul, Shrine, and other circuses still fail to adequately contain dangerous animals.

It’s time we acknowledge that carting apex predators around the country in flimsy cages and putting them into direct contact with humans is a bad idea.

But it’s not just the carnivores who endanger us. Elephants can easily snuff out a human life with a single trunk swipe or foot stomp and kill about as many Americans as big cats do. An elephant at a Shrine circus elephant kicked a handler, throwing him about 20 feet and killing him. At least 15 children and one adult were injured when an elephant giving rides at a Shrine circus became startled. One circus exhibitor recently paid a paltry penalty after allowing elephants to repeatedly endanger the public, including an incident in which the elephants escaped from a Shrine circus and ran amok for nearly an hour.

Elephants can also carry tuberculosis, which highly transmissible to humans—even without direct contact, since it’s airborne. Seven people were recently diagnosed with the disease after being around infected elephants at a zoo, and eight individuals contracted TB from a former circus elephant. Yet elephants with the disease are still routinely exposed to the public. Indeed, virtually every American circus with elephants has a history of tuberculosis. UniverSoul is currently touring with tuberculosis-exposed elephants. In 2014, New York City officials required UniverSoul to keep elephants out of its acts after the circus failed to provide current TB tests. Dallas officials recently prohibited elephants with UniverSoul from performing because they had “tested reactive for tuberculosis,” and Michigan’s assistant state veterinarian cautioned that these elephants should not be on the road because of their TB status. Yet UniverSoul continues to bring these same animals to other states with laxer laws. Shrine and other circuses also routinely feature elephants who carry tuberculosis.

The risks posed by these inherently dangerous animals are only heightened by the abuse and deprivation they endure. Elephants in the wild roam up to 30 miles a day; in circuses, they spend many consecutive hours and even days tightly chained, slowly going out of their minds. Big cats who have home ranges of up to 400 miles are routinely caged in tiny transport containers 24 hours a day.

Deprived of everything that is natural and important to them, these animals only perform tricks because they’re terrified not to. Numerous undercover investigations and eyewitness reports confirm that circus animals are trained through severe beatings—often while they’re caged or chained. Such abuse can provoke aggression, feeding an endless cycle.

While countries around the world have banned these cruel and dangerous acts, America lags woefully behind. In a time of immense divisiveness, surely we can at least agree that no animal deserves to suffer endless abuse and confinement—and that it’s foolhardy to continue to endanger human health and safety for a few fleeting moments of outmoded entertainment.

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