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.

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? Continue reading

Two animal rescues: 33 happy homecomings & one heartbreaker

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Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

Anyone who works in the animal rights arena knows that a single day–nay, a single minute–can feature the most jubilant high and the utmost despairing low. One emotion follows on the heels of the other as news randomly enters your world: humans at their most compassionate and generous best–vigorously turning the wheels of justice for animals; humans at their most uncaring and depraved worst–deliberately evil monsters or indifferent agents of neglect, suffering, and death. How on earth to reconcile this?  Continue reading

White tigers: Tragic–not magic

KennytigerKathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

Kenny died in 2008. If you didn’t mark his passing (you probably didn’t even know about it), don’t feel bad. Kenny, you see, was not the beautiful white tiger on posters for glitzy magic acts. He wasn’t the star attraction drawing crowds of admirers to the zoo. As the product of unscrupulous white tiger breeding, Kenny’s life and death ran under the radar. It was only through the compassion of a wildlife refuge in Arkansas that he was able to live out his life in comfort and even found a modicum of fame (video)–one of the luckiest of the unlucky. He died at 10 years of age from cancer (source).   Continue reading

First Amendment rights and the pursuit of animal rights

Kathleen Stachowski  Other Nations

Many decades have intervened since my First Amendment rights were trampled by the FBI. The year was 1970 and Richard Nixon was appearing at the Fort Wayne (IN) War Memorial Coliseum. A group of us from a small, nearby college with a long history of peace activism decided to take in the spectacle; I suppose our clothes and hair tipped off The Man that we weren’t enthusiastic supporters of the Viet Nam war. We were detained, our tickets confiscated “for verification” and never returned.

We were angry. We felt powerless. We returned to school and told our story. It found its way into the Peace Studies bulletin, and that was the end of it. Today, older and wiser and again confronted with a suspected infringement upon First Amendment rights, I knew exactly what to do: Contact the American Civil Liberties Union.   Continue reading

“Well-mannered predators” and other speciesist notions about animal captivity

Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations

No sooner do we turn the page on the sad story of two wild Montana grizzlies gone psychotic in a Midwestern zoo when along comes more tragedy involving captive wild animals. Yes, wild animals taken from their habitats or born into captivity to live unnatural, diminished lives are tragic cases in their own right. Witness a bear turning endless tight circles in her cement cell (instead of ranging across 100 square wilderness miles) and tell me this isn’t tragic.

But the latest calamities are compounded in that they are also human tragedies–and needless ones but for our speciesist insistence on keeping wild beings captive for our own pleasure and profit. Continue reading

Which animals would St. Francis bless today?

Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

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You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the Blessing of the Animals offered by churches during October, usually near the Oct. 4th Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. In fact, non-Catholic denominations frequently conduct their own animal blessing services, and why not–what’s not to love?!? Heck, you don’t even have to be religious to find beauty in this simple, compassionate gesture. Continue reading