In 1882, P.T. Barnum paid $10,000 to have Jumbo, the world’s most famous elephant, shackled like Houdini, stuffed into a crate and sailed across the ocean to New York City. Barnum got Jumbo on the cheap because — unknown to him but well known to Jumbo’s keepers at the London Zoo — the elephant had gone bonkers.
Jumbo had become such a hazard that his owners feared for the safety of the many children who took rides on his back. Alumni of such rides included an asthmatic Teddy Roosevelt, who, perhaps traumatized by the experience, would later go on to kill four elephants in less than five minutes while on safari in British East Africa. (You can see two of these unfortunate beasts still posing for eternity in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History.)
Jumbo was so traumatized by his travels at sea, confined to his crate, that his handler had to get him stinking drunk. Because beer was already part his regular diet, getting the elephant to swill a few pails of whiskey was no major chore. Three years after Barnum got his prize elephant, Jumbo met his end in a head-on collision with an off-schedule locomotive. Maybe he was drunk. I hope so. The accident happened while they were boarding the animals onto the boxcars to make the next city. A traveling circus is nothing but headache. Especially when you’re using stubborn, unreliable beasts like lions and elephants. Left to their own devices, they’ll just loll around doing squat.
But, over the centuries, circus trainers have come up with ways to get wild animals to comply. Not very nice things. Things like bullhooks, whips, metal pipes and kicks to the head. Things like systematic and total breakage of spirit. Of course, trainers do so only because they know the results are well worth the entertainment it provides to you and your children. They’ve been using these same methods — all except the more recent stun gun — since at least Jumbo’s time.
The training of circus animals is an effective and long-standing tradition, albeit conducted in secret, presumably under the assumption that it’s more fun to watch an elephant put on a fez or do a headstand if you’re not burdened by the knowledge of how that elephant came by such magnificent and unnatural skills. But now, that may all change. With the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, or TEAPA, a bill introduced in Congress in November, exotic species would be banned from traveling circuses.
To hear some wild-animal act enthusiasts, in particular the spokespeople for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, you would think someone had proposed outlawing childhood itself. Of course, Ringling Bros., which is headquartered in Vienna, Va., is not happy that one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), is going to take jobs away from his own constituency, and from a 141-year-old family business! To use Barnum’s favorite expression, that is pure “bunkum,” but I’ll get back to the jobs thing in a second.
First, let us consider how long ago Ringling Bros. phased out the freak show. Yet, we have somehow managed. Of course, if anyone had suggested, 100 years ago, that people should no longer have the privilege of laughing at individuals with deficient growth hormones or genetic defects, it would have been considered about as uncalled for as saying that dancing bears should be banned in Bulgaria. As it so happens, however, even if it was kind of a naked ploy to humanize its image to gain European Union membership, one must now commend Bulgaria: Its bears no longer have to dance on burning coals.
In fact, there’s a long list of other countries — let us doff our hats to Bolivia, Austria, India, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and Slovakia, among others — that have passed measures to ban wild animals in circus acts. Other nations, including Britain, Norway and Brazil, are on the verge of doing the same. Already, dozens of cities in the United States have banned circus animals.
Just to be clear, this bill does not ban circuses. Nor will TEAPA ban domesticated animals from the circus. Is it too obvious to point out that dancing poodles are much more easily trained, and less dangerous, than elephants and Bengal tigers? Forget, for a moment, the heinous violence apparently required to get a wild animal to perform tricks. Think about the elephant that, in its natural habitat, is a creature in constant motion, that can walk up to 15 miles a day. Then take that animal, confine it to the back of an overheated truck, make it ride America’s interstate system up to 50 weeks out of the year, with a few brief moments of chaos, lights and applause, and then force it to spend the remaining 58% to 98% of its life in chains.
One report from Animal Defenders International, which has conducted undercover surveillance of circus animal abuse and which is coordinating the grass-roots campaign behind TEAPA, said that elephants and other animals have been found confined to their transports up to 19 hours for journeys of 5 1/2 hours or less. We cannot be too surprised, then, when we hear about an elephant going on a mad rampage and killing its trainer, or worse, when it results in the death of an innocent bystander or a child, a tragedy that has occurred on numerous occasions.
Ed Stewart, one of the founders of PAWS, a wildlife sanctuary in Galt, Calif., put it best: “People take their most prized possession, their child, give it to a carny, the carny takes it, puts it on the most dangerous animal in the world, and then you give the carny five bucks. No drug test on the elephant or the carny.”
If you’re like me, you find the spectacle of animals at a circus not only disturbing but weirdly embarrassing. It has to do with knowing that the only reason these animals have suffered is in order to learn, let’s admit it, a fairly lame set of tricks, especially when what we are truly eager to see are the acrobats and trapeze artists. The paid entertainers. Which goes to the business about lost jobs.
The fact is, most circus employees already wear multiple hats. The elephant trainer sells tickets and makes the popcorn and helps hoist the big top. Changing over to all-human acts will only increase jobs. Think of Cirque du Soleil and Circus Vargas. Both are more profitable, and I dare say more popular, than Ringling Bros. And all-human acts don’t cost taxpayers for the endless animal inspections demanded of the USDA, which already says it cannot afford to conduct the inspections required under the Animal Welfare Act.
Altogether, this bill could be the best news circuses have heard in a long time. And for the rest of us, we will no longer feel like freaks for wanting to watch. This way, we can all be in on the act.
Jay Kirk is the author of the just-published “Kingdom Under Glass: a Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man’s Quest to Preserve the World’s Great Animals.”