Why Not Retire the Circus Elephants Now?
Luke Sharrett for The New York Times If the welfare of elephants were truly its only concern, the...
Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
If the welfare of elephants were truly its only concern, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus would stop using them in performances now, and put them on a train to sunny Florida, where they could enjoy a comfortable retirement. Instead, as The Associated Press reported Thursday, its 13 wrinkly troupers will be touring the country, doing lumbering tricks in costume for paying customers, until 2018. Then they will be sent to the company’s park near Polk City, Fla., and perform no more.
Continue reading the main story
Related in Opinion
Elephants are big business for Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company, and they have been for a long, long time. So it’s hardly a small thing that the circus has announced it is ending its elephant acts. Though Ringling has always had other trained animals, like horses, dogs, tigers and lions — and, notoriously, in the 1980s, goats made to resemble unicorns — Asian elephants are central to its image and marketing. Many a New Yorker remembers the elephant marches through the Midtown Tunnel to Madison Square Garden.
But big-animal circus acts belong to a different age. Circuses have long since abandoned human freak shows and brutish displays of animals as beasts to gawk at. Many cities and counties have passed ordinances forbidding some elephant shows, because of the use of chains and prods called bullhooks to control the animals. Years of pressure from animal-rights advocates surely influenced Ringling’s decision. And competitors — notably Cirque du Soleil — have shown that it is possible to dazzle audiences with entirely human feats of grace and skill.
The news from Ringling summons two powerful images: Dumbo’s mother, trapped in a circus car, cradling her child to the song “Baby Mine,” in one of the most heartbreaking of all movie scenes, and, more recently, a viral video of two adult elephants rushing to the aid of a fallen baby elephant at a zoo in Zurich. The touching video showed indelibly what scientists well know — that elephants are highly intelligent, social creatures that demonstrate powerful family bonds and nurturing skills.
Questions of cruelty aside, a concern for simple dignity and compassion leads to the conclusion that these magnificent creatures deserve better than being dolled up and sent on the road to do stunts for shrieking children.
In a world full of cruelty toward species not our own, we’ll take good news where we can. There is every reason to welcome the promise of retirement for the elephants, although it would be better if they did not have to wait so long. The Times reports that the company thinks it’s impractical to move the elephants to its 200-acre park sooner. But that seems a little convenient — a chance for a few more seasons of hucksterism that would have made P. T. Barnum proud: Come see the elephants now — before they leave the ring forever!