The owners of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently announced that they will be shutting down in May, ending its 146-year run. Some people gasped in surprise, others grew nostalgic, and others clapped their hands in celebration.
Personally, I wondered to myself, what took so freaking long?
As with most changes, the closing of the circus is complicated and not without its downsides. There will be job losses for people who have been a part of the circus culture for generations. Animals will need new homes. And an American tradition is gone.
But given that this “tradition” is shrouded in cruelty and abuse, quite frankly, it’s long past time to say goodbye.
Sure, many of us have fond memories of the circus, with our rose-colored images of the train rolling into town filled with interesting people and majestic-looking animals that seemed magical to our young and tender eyes. We weren’t aware of what went on behind the scenes, and we didn’t want to know.
Later, as we learned more and saw more, we chose not to know. We pretended we didn’t know. But deep down, many of us knew — on some level — that something wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the bullhook or the first time we saw an animal whipped. Maybe it was the small, dirty cages. Maybe it was seeing a stately elephant walk in circles or putting their gigantic feet on a tiny pedestal and twirling around, and then thinking, that doesn’t seem natural.
Maybe the epiphany didn’t come until later in life after we read Water for Elephants as an adult or when we read The One and Only Ivan to our kids. Maybe we saw a documentary or read the news stories about the death of Kenny, a 3-year-old Asian elephant traveling with the Ringling Bros. Circus. in 1998. Maybe we read about the investigations into animal cruelty, including a Mother Jones investigation that found rampant disease, separation of elephant babies from their mothers, and prolonged periods of time spent in chains.
Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of the circus. I’m an animal lover and consider my pets to be family. In our house, we don’t step on ants, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies, and I’ve been known to let a mouse run across my living room for a few weeks while exhausting all humane forms of capture because I didn’t want to hurt it.
I’ve only been to a few circus shows in my life. As a child, I loved the cotton candy and the acrobats with their sequined costumes. As an adult, my discomfort grew, but I loved seeing my son’s face light up and hearing him squeal with delight when we took him to the circus as a toddler. He rode the elephants, marveled at the tigers performing just a few feet away from where we sat, and I ignored the nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach telling me that this is just not right.
The circus has been under fire for years for animal treatment practices that are questionable at best, horrific at worst. The truth stayed hidden or ignored by the public — including me — for a long time, but as the stories started trickling out about the cruelty and negligence, it became impossible for many people to turn away.
“We didn’t know any better,” Jan Creamer, the president of Animal Defenders International, told USA Today. “Now, we do. As Ringling has found out, people are better educated and recognize suffering and cruelty in other species. They don’t want to see animals suffer for 15 minutes of entertainment.”
The circus’s closing might be bittersweet for some, but it’s far more sweet than bitter to me. Personally, I don’t want to see an animal suffer for 15 minutes or 15 seconds. Period. Sure, there are jobs affected by the circus closing, but it doesn’t need to be a zero sum game. We can protect animals and find employment for the workers. We can have fun with our families and expose them to animals — domestic and wild — without sacrificing the quality of life of the animals for our entertainment. Parents can take their kids to animal sanctuaries or Cirque du Soleil. Spend an afternoon walking dogs or playing with kittens at a local animal shelter. Adopt an endangered animal by checking out the World Wildlife Fund.
We can be kind to humans and animals. It’s not an either-or proposition. We’re all animals, after all. So while a few people are swimming in nostalgia for what some called the “greatest show on earth,” I, for one, am relieved and elated to see the show come to an end.
And don’t even get me started on the clowns.
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