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PETA Takes Down The Big Top

Elephants with headdresses that read 'The Greatest Show on Earth' walk in line on a city street
photo courtesy Fort Carson on Flickr

As we drove out of Orlando after a company meeting one Friday evening a couple of weeks ago, we passed the downtown arena where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was to perform that weekend.

Mostly jokingly, I asked my wife if she was interested in attending. She was not. We don’t have anything against the circus on principle; we had both been to the Ringling Bros. show as children, and when our kids were growing up in New York, we made a point of taking them to the Big Apple Circus. But it was not the sort of thing we would do on our own in place of, say, going to the movies. We figured there would be time enough to go back to the circus when we had grandchildren.

Except time had run out. The very next night, the owners announced that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is shutting down this spring after 146 years riding the rails and roads across America (and many other places).

Nor is it alone. The Big Apple Circus canceled its 2016-17 season and is auctioning itself off in bankruptcy proceedings. While there are still a few much smaller traveling outfits that hang on, for now, the writing is on the wall – or the tent flap, as the case may be. Circuses have about as much relevance in today’s world as the horse-drawn buggies in which patrons used to arrive to see them.

Those circuses that are hanging on are less and less like the classic image of Ringling Bros.’ show – so much so that past generations might not recognize them as “circuses” at all. The biggest example, Cirque du Soleil, is going strong with 20 shows, including one on Broadway. But these spectacles do not include animals, their clowns are more whimsical than slapstick and not all of the shows even tour. And even with these differences, none of Cirque’s direct competitors can currently boast anything like the company’s success, much less the companies mounting more traditional circus performances.

Writ large, this is the result of changing tastes and a vastly greater array of entertainment choices available to us all. You could say the internet killed the circus. After all, it used to be that when a circus showed up in town every year, most people in a town would buy a ticket – every year. Now, even someone like me, who enjoys a circus, might buy a ticket once or twice every generation. You can’t keep a business running on that kind of patronage.

Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Ringling Bros.’ owners said there was no single culprit. In addition to the internet and an increasingly crowded field of entertainment options, there were the rising expenses – significantly including rail costs – that drove up ticket prices, keeping more potential customers away.

But in the most immediate and practical sense, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – better known as PETA – killed the circus, and specifically Ringling Bros. The circus was collateral damage in a PETA-led campaign to ban the circus’ most popular attraction: the performances by trained elephants.

The elephants were clearly the stars of the Ringling Bros. show. A lot of people who would rather watch a YouTube video on a cellphone than a live human in tights on a flying trapeze were still interested in the rare opportunity to see an enormous and intelligent mammal, alive and just a few yards away, performing tricks that made its human handlers happy. Maybe the elephants didn’t mind; maybe they minded deeply but saw no other option, since trampling the spectators in a bid for freedom might have struck the typically gentle giants as – well, as the elephant equivalent of inhumane. Maybe, as I have posited in the past about performing orcas, they prefer to have a job. The elephants didn’t say.

After years of campaigns against elephant shows by PETA and a bevy of supportive celebrities, Ringling Bros. gave in and retired the elephants last year. Its ticket sales, which were already declining, collapsed. In less than a year, so did the business. About 500 people, and presumably many more animals, will be out of work after the lights go down for the final time in May.

It is fair to give PETA the credit, or the blame, for getting the elephants put out to pasture in a preserve and shutting down the circus as a consequence. And although you might expect otherwise, I actually give PETA more credit than blame in this instance.

After all, a principled case can be made that an elephant’s place is in the habitat that nature intended for it, in the family groups to which it normally adheres. These are intelligent, long-lived beasts, which in a few cases have demonstrated they are capable of artistic expression and communication with humans. We don’t entertain ourselves with gladiators and cockfights anymore; we don’t put children to work in factories. It may well be that we have reached a point in our own development as a civilization to view elephant acts much the same way.

PETA did not achieve this result quickly or by accident. It ran a skillful campaign that combined reasoned argument with a fairly good dose of propaganda – just like any other political campaign in a democracy. A PETA investigation into elephant “abuse” at Ringling Bros. found – surprise! – elephant abuse. Trainers use whips and long metal hooks (called a bullhook or ankus) to command and control the animals. Used improperly, the sharp hook can cause injuries, although most times the trainer is merely using it to apply pressure that the elephant can feel through its thick skin to reinforce a command. An uncontrolled elephant in close proximity to humans is a dangerous thing.

Of course, when we see these implements, we picture how we would feel if they were used on us, and we recoil instinctively from the thought. That was the propaganda part.

Now that the elephants are retired, what happens next? Thankfully, unlike the orcas’ case, nobody is talking about releasing them to the wild. Wild elephants themselves are in grave danger thanks to habitat loss and poaching. The Chinese government’s recent announcement that it will ban the ivory trade is apt to save many more elephants than anything PETA could ever do here. But elephants still compete with humans for space, and they usually lose.

Nobody is proposing to take circus animals and release them to the wild in Africa or Asia, even if governments in those places were willing to take them. But it will take a lot of money to support the elephants in retirement, and now the circus for which they labored is gone. Like so many Americans, these elephants face the uncertainty of combining a long life span with a large, unfunded pension liability. Unlike the rest of us, they are not entitled to the benefits of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Maybe PETA or some of the celebrities who support it are interested in funding the elephants’ retirement. They might also think of all the other creatures for which the circus operators must now find new, humane homes, not to mention all those people looking for work. But probably not. With its elephant mission accomplished, PETA will move on to the next instance in which it thinks our treatment of animals is unethical. Figuring out what to do with an unemployed elephant, Siberian tiger or two-legged juggler is someone else’s problem.

As for me, I'll find some other way to entertain those grandchildren when they come along. There’s always YouTube.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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