The "Greatest Show on Earth" — the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — closed for good Sunday night in New York, ending a 146-year run. I was lucky enough to see one of its last performances, in early April.
They say that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan — but in the case of Ringling, there is at least one proud papa taking credit for driving the circus into the ground: the animal rights movement.
"As of May the saddest show on earth for wild animals will end," crowed People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in a news release after Ringling announced its imminent shutdown in January. "Thirty-six years of PETA protests, of documenting animals left to die, beaten animals, and much more, has reduced attendance to the point of no return."
The dwindling audiences that led Ringling to fold up its metaphorical Big Top (it hadn't performed in an actual tent since 1956) probably have had more to do with competition from other forms of family entertainment than with animal rights agitation. But the Kill Ringling movement — which includes many groups, among them the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Performing Animal Welfare Society, as well as celebrities such as "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson and "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane — was nothing if not dedicated. PETA posted picket-bearing protesters outside nearly every Ringling performance and flooded the Internet with disturbing videos showing helpless beasts shackled in chains, closely confined in cages, goaded with hooks and whips and vulnerable to infectious diseases in packed circus trains.
The results have stretched far beyond Ringling's demise: Humans watching wild animals do tricks is now, if not entirely socially unacceptable (Ringling's lions and tigers garnered a lot of delighted applause when I saw the show), certainly unacceptable among the politically liberal elites who set the tone for the general culture.
Ringling Bros. has always denied mistreating its animals, but the PETA videos, typically made undercover, are genuinely wince-inducing — if you can bear to watch them at all. In 2011, Feld Entertainment Inc., Ringling's parent company, paid a $270,000 civil penalty to the Department of Agriculture to settle a PETA-brought claim of violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act; Feld also agreed to compliance training for its handlers and veterinarians. In 2016, Ringling took elephants out of its shows altogether.
However, Feld also won two other animal-maltreatment suits, and in the longest-running piece of litigation, still ongoing after 14 years, the ASPCA, the Humane Society and other animal-rights groups had to pay the circus $25 million to settle a racketeering counterclaim after it was alleged the organization had paid a former Ringling elephant trainer to be a plaintiff.
Unless your heart is forged of titanium, you cannot be in favor of cruelty to animals. It's encouraging to know that Western society no longer tolerates the routine abuse of animals, wild or domestic — and such abuse was, until fairly recently, all too routine at circuses and elsewhere. But the crusade against Ringling, SeaWorld and other animal entertainment purveyors is something more. PETA, after all, holds that drinking milk and wearing leather shoes amount to animal exploitation. This movement doesn't simply have animal welfare as its goal; it has an ideological component: the idea that human beings have no special moral standing in the universe and cannot claim dominion over other living creatures, no matter how well they treat them.
The PETA motto sums it up: "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way." For the truest believers, the idea is, any use of an animal by a human is abuse.
PETA wants people to go not just vegetarian (cows feel fear) but vegan (eating eggs exploits chickens). It opposes not just experiments on living animals in labs but the dissection of already dead animals in school biology classes. The ASPCA and the Humane Society have campaigned to ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City. Some activists want to prevent the buying and selling of dogs (only "companion animals" rescued from shelters are OK). Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, a self-professed opponent of "speciesism," wrote in 1979 that "the life of a newborn [human] is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee."
The implications of this position are sweeping. It might be OK to teach Fido to fetch (as long as you use positive reinforcement), but PETA and others maintain that using dogs to guide the blind is morally problematic (service dogs have to "work day after day"). Among true believers, it's morally wrong to ride a horse or show a dog at Westminster. The movement's blanket opposition to animal testing of drugs discounts the desperation of parents whose baby might be saved. And don't even think about buying a sweater (sheep exploitation), let alone that fur coat.
You can rejoice — although I don't — at the passing of the Ringling circus and its animal acts, but you might want to think hard about the world those who agitated for its passing want to create.
Washington-based Charlotte Allen writes about social and cultural issues.
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