Thursday marked a historic day for animal welfare advocates and the power of public protest after Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced they would retire all elephants from their acts by 2018.
According to USA Today, all of Feld’s 43 elephants will live at the company’s 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Twenty-nine of the animals have already been transferred there, and the remaining 14 will arrive as they are phased out of use over the next three years.
Given that in 2011 Ringling Brothers was fined $270,000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for dozens of Animal Welfare Act violations — the largest civil penalty ever paid by a violator under the act — and the fact that at least 30 elephants have died in their care since 1992, this decision by the company was way overdue.
And Ringling Brothers treatment of elephants is not an isolated incident. The circus uses similarly abusive techniques to “break” their other performing animals, which include exotic big cats, horses, llamas, goats and zebra. Why should we assume that they treat these animals any better than they do elephants? We shouldn’t. So, if Ringling Brothers really cares about animals in the way Thursday’s decision was meant to make people think, then they really should consider these four things next.
1. Stop Captive Breeding
When Ringling Brothers isn’t stealing animals straight out of their wild habitats, they are breeding wild animals in captivity to use in new acts. But they’re working with limited resources, so they can only breed certain pairs so many times before inbreeding occurs.
Additionally, the beautiful and illustrious white tigers that are paraded around circuses and zoos as amazing, “rare” animals are nothing of the sort. They are actually the result of inbreeding used to favor the genetic mutation that causes white fur. After suffering from the same mutation across generations, all white tigers are cross eyed, and many also suffer from club feet, spinal defects, cleft palates and even defective organs.
If Ringling Brothers actually cares about animals and conservation, then they would stop breeding animals that will never actually be reintroduced into the wild.
2. Stop the Use of Painful Training Processes and Negative Reinforcement
To maintain control over animals, Ringling Brothers has often deprived animals of food and water for long periods of time. Additionally, lions and tigers often suffer similar training tactics used on elephants, which include whipping, being forced to stand for an unreasonably long amount of time.
Captive World of Animals/Blogspot
Former Ringling Brothers employee Archele Hundley also teamed up with PETA to help orchestrate a public movement against the circus. Hundley said she saw handlers beat an elephant for 30 minutes until she was bloody and covered in wounds. In the two months that Hundley worked with the animal training crew, she witnessed a number of horrifying incidents that illustrate how Ringling Brothers trains and punishes animals: She saw trainers beat an elephant with bull hooks until she cried out and bled profusely. She also saw a trainer viciously whip a camel and also punch a miniature horse in the face. In a number of instances, she saw trainers jab horses with pitchforks and use very painful lip twists to force them to obey commands. She also saw the circus continue to tour and work an elephant with painful arthritis.
If Ringling Brothers really cares about their animals, they should start treating their animals with respect and stop using negative reinforcement.
3. Stop Subjecting Animals to Laborious and Stressful Tours
The elephant with arthritis that Hundley saw isn’t the only animal who has suffered from Ringling Brothers long, non-stop touring schedule. According to Wildlife Advocacy, the Red and Blue Units of the Ringling Brothers Circus typically perform for more than 40 cities every year. They transport all of the animals from city to city on trains, with all the animals packed next to each other in cages or chained by their legs. This means that the animals spend most of their time — any time that they aren’t performing — in a cart, being forced to stand for long periods of time, or, if they’re caged, being unable to stretch for long periods of time.
Central Penn Rail Productions/YouTube
Horses who are stalled for too long can injure themselves, develop muscular problems or become aggressive. For lions and tigers, Big Cats Rescue says that tigers only spend about one to nine percent of their time in training, which means they spend the rest of their time in cages with no stimulation or interaction with their species. A recent study found that of animals used in circuses, lions and tigers are the least suited to the constant train-tour-cage lifestyle.
“It’s no one single factor,” says Stephen Harris of the University of Bristol, UK, and lead researcher of the study. “Whether it’s lack of space and exercise, or lack of social contact, all factors combined show it’s a poor quality of life compared with the wild.”
We can only hope that phasing out long, physically and mentally stressful tours would be the next logical step for Ringling Bros.
4. Stop the Use of Animals. Period.
Mountains of evidence have shown that wild animals—or animals used in any form of demanding entertainment — just don’t flourish in the same way their truly wild counterparts do. When animals spend most of their time in cages, we can’t really consider them animals raised for “conservation” purposes. If you want to help show them how much more work is left to do, you can start by boycotting the circus, and voicing your outrage. Ringling Bros. decided to retire all of their elephants after prolonged public outrage, which is clear evidence that it works. You can also tell your friends and family about circuses, and get them on the boycott train. Lastly, you can sign a few petitions to help end the use of wild animals in circuses.
Lead image source: Julie/Flickr