It’s been a year since Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus finally paid the piper. To say that the price was just is an understatement.
For nearly 150 years, the circus kept animals in chains and confined them to cages, dragged them around the country, and beat and whipped them to make them perform. But rather than seeing the writing on the wall and acknowledging the outcry of a caring public, Ringling stuck to its playbook — even as it played to more empty seats.
That changed last May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y., when the curtain dropped on the circus’ shameful legacy for good.
A major win for the elephants, tigers, lions, zebras, camels, llamas, bears, monkeys, seals and other animals exploited by Ringling — and for those who care about their welfare — the demise of The Cruelest Show on Earth kicked off a series of victories.
This month, the Kelly Miller Circus raised the curtain on a new era. New owner James Kendrick Judkins had said that his Oklahoma-based circus would no longer include exotic animals, but he went one better when it opened its 80th season: It was completely animal-free.
Judkins took over after the previous owner, John Ringling North II — the last Ringling still working with circuses — was forced to sell the business amid declining ticket sales and the public’s outrage over cruel animal acts. Reviews of the reborn circus underscore the success of Judkins’ compassionate decision: He heard from attendees of the opening performances that “it was the best show that they have seen in years.”
Given the growing opposition to forcing animals to perform, the warm reception given to the new Kelly Miller Circus isn’t surprising. Circuses that feature only willing human performers are thriving, including San Diego’s Circus Vargas, Quebec’s Cirque Eloize and Cirque Italia.
Australia’s Stardust Circus paid attention as dedicated animal-rights advocates raised their voices, and as its list of canceled performances grew, it stopped touring with elephants. That win, however, came with an asterisk: The circus still tours with lions, monkeys and other animals.
Garden Bros. Circus could also stand to do a little soul-searching. It recently added an animal-free unit to its schedule, but other productions feature elephants from Carson & Barnes Circus, a disreputable exhibitor that beats these intelligent, family-oriented animals with steel-tipped bullhooks and shocks them with Tasers and electric prods.
While it’s commendable that Garden Bros. added an animal-free performance and Stardust stopped touring with elephants, they should both follow Kelly Miller’s lead and end all their animal acts.
Some victories have taken place away from the center ring. On June 21 last year, a month after Ringling Bros. was swept into the dustbin of history, New York banned all traveling circuses from bringing wild animals into its five boroughs, making it the largest city so far to recognize the cruelty inherent in forcing animals to perform. Santa Fe, N.M., followed suit three months later. And this was not long after Romania joined Peru, Sweden, Israel and other countries that have done the same.
But people who care about animals shouldn’t rest on their laurels.
Atlanta’s UniverSoul Circus has exploited animals for 25 years — and has been greeted this year with opening-day protests in Jacksonville, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; and beyond. Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., opens its doors to Carson & Barnes Circus, even though its animal-care director was videotaped attacking elephants with a bullhook, shocking them with an electric prod and telling his staff to hurt them until they screamed. And the Melha Shrine Circus in Springfield, Mass., reneged on its promise to drop cruel animal acts.
Animals deserve a life free of fear and pain. Ringling Bros.’ demise should be a lesson to circuses that still haven’t changed with the times. But if they refuse to learn from it, we can help them see the light by boycotting them and urging our families and friends to do the same.
Craig Shapiro is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.