Ringling v. PETA: Elephant Debate Heats Up

BlogHer Original Post

Today's mail brought a bright colorful advertisement for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show, "Zing Zang Zoom", coming to my friendly neighborhood coliseum. Unfortunately, I have also been reading the wires, articles, blogs and tweets about an undercover PETA video that shows Ringling's employees mistreating elephants. Not great timing for the circus. 


Now, I always take PETA's claims and campaigns with a grain of salt. They are an extremist group and while I applaud their mission, I'm not always down with their tactics. But after viewing the video in question, I have to agree that something smells very bad here. 




What you see in the video (taken by a PETA spy) is two or three macho men whipping elephants for no apparent reason. The animals are merely standing there, not misbehaving or acting out. These men not only whip the animals, one of them yells directly at one elephant, "Fuck you, fat ass." 


In certain situations, Ringling might be able to explain away the whippings as 'handling for safety' or some such thing but the expletive somehow reveals a depth of sickness here that cannot be PR'd away. How small-minded do you have to be to berate a docile elephant? 

"Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey loves its elephants." 

--Circus spokeswoman Amy McWethy

In a statement, Feld Entertainment Inc., which owns Ringling, called the PETA video "questionable in its context regarding the portrayal of circus animal handlers" and said the circus was in compliance with federal, state and local regulations:

"Ringling Bros. is proud of its efforts to care for and increase the population of the endangered Asian elephant and we encourage people to come see for themselves that the animals are thriving in our care." 

--Felt Entertainment Inc. 

The last time I went to the circus was November 2007. I had become a Big Sister to 10-year-old Velrene and she'd never been. We sat there watching the big cats and the elephants and we clapped. I'd seen these magnificent beasts in their natural context and watching them perform tricks in our in our seamy human world made me cringe.




Still, I said nothing. I didn't want to ruin the experience for Velrene. And then, halfway through the elephant act, she said unexpectedly, "They look sad." 


"They do," I said quietly. I then recalled my own elephant experiences and realized I had a handful. 


On my 29th birthday - one of my favorites - my fellow campers and I were stormed by pygmy elephants in Mikumi National Park in Tanzania. A bull was protecting his harem and didn't like us hanging out. He flapped out his big ears and trumpeted his best "Buzz off, humans!" message. We took his advice and made haste. 


One early morning in Botswana, I was taking my morning pee against one of the many giant termite mounds and trying to wake up. Along the horizon, I could see one palm tree after another quiver and then topple over. Quiver, topple. Quiver, topple. A bull elephant was also up early, making his trail for the day. He appeared to be eating up the landscape and I couldn't help but be impressed. He was Master of his Universe.


Then there was Jimmy, the lovelorn teenager. When we set up camp in Zimbabwe, a local fellow warned us that Jimmy was a young pygmy elephant who fancied female humans - preferring blondes. 


"If Jimmy likes you, be careful. He may throw things and try to get your attention," said the guide, looking straight at me. I was blonde at the time.


Sure enough, one day while walking to my tent - WHAM! I got an orange on the side of my head. "Yee-ow!" I yelped.  I turned around and Jimmy eyed me flirtatiously, lifting his trunk and batting his eyes. Romance on the playground all over again - getting punched in the arm by Tommy Bootsma. It was hard to stay mad at Jimmy so I hung out with him the rest of the day, holding a cold beer bottle to my head wound. My brief romance with Jimmy gave new meaning to the word "crush." 




All these images floated through my mind as I watched the once-proud beasts, 'dressed up' in red and gold brocade. They paraded around the stage and performed tricks for our collective delight. Even without the bull hooks and the verbal abuse, it looks like a certain kind of prison. These guys should be trampling trees, I kept thinking, not standing on their hind legs in party hats. 


One thing is certain, this battle between Ringling and PETA is not new and certainly isn't going away any time soon. Still, some have come around to the animals point of view. Bolivia recently became the first nation in the world to ban the use of animals in circuses. While I doubt the U.S. will be on board anytime soon, the government may be forced to intervene. 


PETA has, in fact, filed formal complaints with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and prosecutors and law-enforcement officials in seven states where the alleged abuses took place. PETA cites 85 incidents that it believes violated the Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act. Protests are planned along the Ringling performance route and several local human societies are calling for a boycott. 


Undoubtedly, more to come. 



Blogs Monroe makes a case for human-only circuses: 

"The true essence of a circus does not necessarily dictate that animals of any sort be involved anyway. A circus is a troop of performers that entertain whether by acrobatic feats, walking tightropes, juggling, tumbling, clowning around or any of many other types of entertaining stunts. Watching humans perform highly skilled acts appears to be much more mesmerizing to current generations of people too. The proof is the many productions of Cirque de Soleil. Consumers are willing to pay a good deal to see a Cirque show because the human performances are truly amazing, and something we can relate to better." 

Debbie Abrams over at Frisco Kids blogs about family travel in the Bay Area. Every year, she takes her kids to the circus and this year is no different, though she does pause for thought:

"Now I can’t post this without mentioning the circus controversy. Each year we see protesters decry the treatment of these animals, especially the elephants. I’m not sure what the truth is, so I’ll print both sides. Animal welfare activists are suing the circus, claiming the elephants are chained up far too long, and claim the trainers use inhumane bull hooks on them. The circus argues that they treat the animals well. You can judge for yourself." 

Meanwhile, Emily G. takes a scientific point of view at Posterous

"As an anthropology major, I am absolutely fascinated by humans. We pride ourselves on being the MOST humane creature to exist. After watching undercover video footage shot in Ringling's Red Unit, I question if we are a different order or just another species of cruel creatures?"



(Image Credits: Top - Alex Wong/Getty Images North America; Middle - Scott Wintrow/ Getty Images; Bottom - Africa Safari Travel Guide.) 


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