On May 21, 2017, Uniondale, N.Y., witnessed the last performance of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus. During the last of it’s 146 year history, “The Greatest Show on Earth” suffered from shrinking attendance, growing costs, competition from other forms of entertainment (including computers) and increasing pressure from those concerned with the welfare of circus animals.

Ever since humans began using animals in exhibitions and traveling acts, stories of their treatment have circulated, from the horrific to the sentimental. Those on the outside investigate and suspect; those on the inside defend.

Colleen Dougherty

Colleen Dougherty

Ironically, a few years before Barnum started his circus, a strange friendship began between he and the man who had just founded the ASPCA in New York, Henry Bergh. The two men seemed to be two sides of the same coin. Bergh maintained a critical eye and voice toward Barnum, who, beyond being a rags to riches success and superior showman, was suspected of not always having the best interests of his performers (human or animal) at heart.

Barnum, on the other hand, chided Bergh, who was nicknamed “the great meddler,” on the importance of public image and popularity if one desires success in one’s mission.

But in the end, the greater truth is that animals have needs that cannot be met in environments that are artificial to them (like train travel, confinement, lack of opportunity for species-typical behavior, improper diets and the pressure to learn and perform tricks for human amusement) and to subject them to such a life is cruel and inhumane.

Barnum’s circus retired it’s elephants in 2009. In 2017, Illinois enacted a state-wide ban on elephant acts in traveling shows or exhibitions, and in December 2018. New Jersey became the first state to impose a ban on the use of elephants, tigers and all other wild or exotic animals in traveling animal acts.

“Nosey’s Law” was named after a 36-year-old African elephant with severe arthritis who had suffered terribly in a traveling circus show. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy proclaimed, “These animals belong in their natural habitats, or in sanctuaries — not in performances where their safety and the safety of others is at risk.”

Brian Hackett, director of the HSUS in New Jersey stated, “For too long, wild animals used in circuses have endured cruel training, constant confinement and deprivation of all that is natural to them.”

Hawaii enacted a similar ban just one week later, followed by New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio announced, “We are banning the use of exotic animals in circuses in New York City because we’re looking out for New Yorkers big and small, furry and tall.”

Los Angeles also passed a city ordinance prohibiting “exhibitions of exotic or wild animals for entertainment or amusement.” City Councilman David Ryu stated, “Treating animals in this manner has taught generations of people that it is OK to view wild and exotic animals as toys.”

Forty countries, 28 Canadian provinces, 31 U.S. states and 80 U.S. jurisdictions (including Santa Fe and Las Cruces) have full or partial bans on the use of animals in exhibitions. Mexico City recently joined six other Mexican states in similar bans, promoting as one Mexico City politician put it, “a respect for living beings who are not human.”

In place of animal acts, contemporary circuses focus their entertainment more on acrobatics (like Cirque du Soleil) and child-appropriate magic, and comedy.

On with the show!

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