Every year for my birthday, my uncle took me to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The show always fell on or near my birthday at the end of March and it was a tradition I looked forward to. I can still very clearly see the majestic elephants enter the ring and perform to the audience’s delight. I would come home with the oversized circus program and proudly show my friends photos of the majestic animals I had seen perform.
It was many years before I learned the sad reality behind the “Greatest Show On Earth.” When I worked at the ASPCA, one of the media campaigns I directed was focused raising public awareness of what really goes on behind the scenes at the circus. My team and I followed Ringling Bros. around the country and used the power of the media to educate the public about the horrors under the ‘big top.”
The elephants in circuses are trained through the use of intimidation and physical abuse. I spoke first-hand with former employees who saw these magnificent sentient animals beaten with bull hooks, and denied food and water to force them to learn their routines. I’ll never forget the countless hours I spent watching video with one former handler. He would sit, tears in his eyes and tell me stories of the senseless cruelty inflicted upon the elephants who he lovingly referred to as his ‘girls.’
While the beating was always excruciating to watch, learning about the psychological effects on these very sociable animals was heartbreaking. Traveling with a circus in dark box cars is inherently stressful for the animals. The elephants are kept separated and chained for extended periods of time with no access to food or water and unable to move. All in the name of entertainment and revenue for Feld Entertainment.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced yesterday that it will phase out the use of elephants in its circuses by 2016. While it’s disappointing that the elephants are not to be removed immediately from the show, I will remain cautiously optimistic that Ringling Bros. will do the right thing and remove all exotic animals from their performances.
Yesterday’s victory for animals is a direct result of years of coordinated efforts by many animal protection groups and compassionate advocates who refused to let the publicists working on behalf of Feld Entertainment continue their shameful efforts at hiding blatant and uncalled for animal abuse in cities from coast to coast.
Yesterday’s announcement should serve as a warning to circuses, zoos and laboratories who continue to senselessly hold captive and torture animals. The media is a powerful tool to change hearts and minds. Those of us who work to raise awareness of cruelty to animals are today even more invigorated to continue to fight on their behalf.