Clown - Responsible or not? Ringling Bros. Circus

I was surprised how excited I was to take my kids to “The Greatest Show on Earth,” on Saturday.

The last time I’d been to The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was at least 30 years ago, and I knew my four and five year old kids would be captivated by the show.

I had a few reservations regarding animal treatment, but my visit to the Ringling’s site help allay my fears. The site itself is fresh, fun, filled with video and is easy to navigate. Prominent on the homepage was a link to their Center for Elephant Conservation, that was “established in 1995 to help preserve and protect the species’ well-being.”

My conscience clear, my wife, kids and nanny all hit the circus on Saturday.

The show started at 11:30, but ticket holders could see the animals at 10:00 a.m.

The first thing that surprised me was how close we were able to get to the animals, especially the elephants, with very little protection:

Ringling Bros. elephants - up close and personal

I was pleasantly surprised when the guy who sold us our snowcones said, “look for me up on the concourse if you’d like a refill.”

I also didn’t expect the souvenir cups to be high quality and guaranteed for two years, or for them to give you a card with a 24 hour toll-free feedback number.

At 10:30, the show floor was opened and we were able to walk right down on the floor and mingle with the entertainers.

Pop music was playing giving the pre-show a real contemporary feel, and jugglers, clowns, acrobats and animals performed for nearly an hour—up close and personal. You could take your picture with a number of the entertainers (not staged, just as they were walking around) and you could even try on costumes.

At 11:30 the show started, and as expected, there was plenty to put you on the edge of your seat.

This was not the circus I remembered: Elephant conservation? You get to see the animals before the show? Refills? Quality products? Guarantees? Feedback cards?

We left the show with smiles on our faces, and I was excited about my blog post—Responsible Marketing at the circus? Cool.

But as we exited the show, there were perhaps a dozen people protesting Ringling’s treatment of animals. “Please say no, because the animals can’t” read one sign, and I had a sinking feeling in my gut.

Then I received a response to my Twitter post “Taking the kids to the greatest show on earth,” from Joe Kennedy asking if there were any protesters and if I paid for the $10 for the cotton candy. I sheepishly responded positively to both.

I had to know more, so I dug a little deeper. The information I found is troubling:

Ringling Bros. has an animal care FAQ response to the questions regarding elephants deaths is “In the last 15 years, 25 elephants died, most as the result of old age.”

I commend Ringling for all the positive changes I mentioned above. I’d love to think they are part of the new, improved Ringling. . . that the ‘transparency’ they were offering in letting us see the animals before the show was authentic.

Still, I’m uneasy.

I’m embarassed I didn’t look further than the Ringling website for information regarding animal treatment—if I’d had known I was going to write this, I would have done my due diligence.

And I’m genuinely uncomfortable thinking that by ‘investing’ in the circus, I’ve helped fund animal torture.

After all, when we visited the animals in pre-show, my wife asked me, “How could they have ever trained the elephants to stay behind that single line?”

Now, I’m almost afraid to know the answer.

Is the Ringling Bros. new transparency just a ruse and their Center for Elephant Conservation nothing more than obfuscation?

Or do you think Ringling is turning the corner and working to become more responsible?

Comment below to weigh in.

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Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • barry says:

    Greetings and good wishes from Australia!

    How sad that a staple of American heritage is being defamed, and parents are being scared into not taking their children to an experience they will never forget.

    I have lived within the shadow of a big top for 30 years or more. Have read all the studies, observed the behaviours of exhibited animals for thousands of hours. Animal husbandry has evolved, it continues to evolve. Google “martha kiley worthington”

    Training of circus animals is based on reward, repetition, and positive reinforcement, never cruelty.

    A study done by Dr. Martha Kiley-Worthington , one of the world’s foremost animal behavior experts, revealed that circus animals are healthier and live longer than either animals in the wild or in zoos.

    Please visit the Circus You’ll be amazed to see that the animals actually enjoy what they do at the circus and are in no way afraid or hurt.

    Circus is about families entertaining families. Circus is about community; working with sponsors to raise money that will serve all of us long after the show is gone.

    You’ll be glad you spent the small amount to give your child the thrill and joy that can only come from a bonafide circus.

  • David says:

    Barry,

    I think the public’s common sense wins this one. If the training system were based on reward, trainers would be carrying around bags of treats rather than sharp metal-tipped bullhooks.

    The circus may be about “community” but I think this disturbing group of people is certainly not a “community” we should be exposing our children to. Please learn more about circus workers common criminal history here: http://circuses.com/circusCriminals.asp

    Further, the only thing a circus provides to children is the understanding that it is ok to confine, cage, dominate, and whip a wild animal with sentient feeling.

    It takes no extra effort to simply take our family to a non-animal circus. Surely a movie theater or a game of ball in the park is more enjoyable (and far less stinky) than a cruel and outdated circus.

    David Salisbury
    People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

  • Tabitha "Tabz" Smith says:

    I think both sides have something to gain (or lose) – so in reality I don’t trust either group. Yes, I believe that animals should be treated well, but I don’t believe that circus animals aren’t.

    Did you have fun? Did your kids get to experience something they’d never see elsewhere? If anything it brings up a way to TALK to your kids about real animal abuse. I’ve been to the circus as a child… I don’t think I’m any the worse for it.

  • shari storm says:

    I’m not quite sure what I think of circuses. They’ve always kind of been on the fringe of decency, haven’t they? We took our daughters to see a local, low budget one. The animals were fine (there were none), it was the kids in the acts that I was a little concerned about. They looked like Dickens’ era vagabonds. At one point, my husband whispered to me, “hold on tight to the children”. I instantly had visions of our girls being snatched up and forced to live the life of a carny…

  • I’m definitely not for torture of animals, but think the PETA people need to rethink their actions. I took my 4 year old daughter last year and the PETA people were handing out full color picture postcards of mutilated animals (don’t believe they were circus animals at all). This could really scar a kid for life.

    Seeing animals perform in a circus is an experience that all kids should be able to experience in their lifetimes.

    The show itself was great, but I do have an issue with Ringling Brothers attempt to highjack the wallets of parents whose kids are begging for $10 cotton candy and other outrageously priced “food”.

  • Deanna Picard says:

    Those creeping thoughts are justified. No animal would perform like these animals do without fear of punishment. I’ve seen those investigative videos; they’re hard to watch. Abuse and cruelty are par for the course in the training of these poor animals. And, they’re stuffed into small cages for transport. Can you imagine? Animals who should be in the wild roaming hundreds of miles and living natural lives spend their lives being transported in cages and trained to perfom degrading acts such as kneeling, wearing ridiculous headdresses, and parading around in lines for clueless, gaping humans. Kids learn not about animals, but about how captive, abused animals are forced to live. Go with your gut…your instinct on this was right.

  • Elizabeth SF says:

    I attended the circus once as a young child, and I remember leaving in tears. I’ve never fogotten how miserable the animals looked–and the elephants in the photo accompanying this story look just as miserable. Elephants and other exotic animals don’t belong in arenas and box cars, and they certainly don’t deserve to be beaten and confined so that we can enjoy a few minutes of “entertainment.” There are many other ways to educate children about animals without supporting abuse. Please don’t attend animal-based circuses–we owe it to the animals, our kids, and ourselves.

  • S Morgan says:

    I’m sorry you went and rewarded Ringling’s abuse of animals, but I commend you for your detective work. All of what you found on circuses.com is true. I have worked undercover to expose the abuses and have seen plenty. What else do you think Ringling would actually say on their website? That they train with bullhooks and electric prods, whips and chain them for 20 hours at a time? The truth hurts Ringling and on October 7th, the truth will come out in a court of law. They have paid to “stall” this trial for EIGHT YEARS because of the mountain of evidence against them. MasterCard just dropped them – again this week. They are scared and getting desperate. Their “conservation” program is just a breeding facility because they are losing more elephants than they can replace. An elephant in the wild’s life span is around 75 years. In captivity they are lucky to make it to 35-40 at the most. Most die from foot rot, a condition caused by being stationary on hard surfaces. At least half of them also have a human strain of TB, which is communicable to the children that ride them, or whomever gets blown on. They roam 30-50 miles a day in the wild – not because they have to, but because they NEED exercise. Elephants in zoos aren’t much better off. Like Mr. Salisbury said, if they used “positive” methods, why the sharp weapon and not a bag of treats? You will NEVER see a handler without that hook. They cover up the wounds, abcesses and scars with Wonder Dust, a grey powder that hides bloody wounds during performances. All for your child’s 12 minutes of laughter at wild animals doing demeaning tricks like standing on their heads. Tigers in the wild usually live in a 50 mile radius – alone. They are nocturnal by nature. But in the circus, if not performing in front of a whip for a few minutes in the DAYTIME, they are confined to a 4X5 foot cage together. The whole thing is disgusting, and it does absolutely NOTHING for anyone, especially children, to appreciate wildlife. Tiny cages, whips, chains, hooks, electric prods, rides of 20 or more hours in totally uncontrolled, hot boxcars. Wow. What a great life of “Reward”.

  • Lacey Matthews says:

    One year, when Ringling came to town, a horse dropped dead during the parade from the train to the arena. Turns out, the horse had a chronic respiratory condition and had no business being shlepped around from performance to performance in a stuffy train car. But he was, and he died, all so that Ringling could make a buck.

    A couple years later, a trainer with another circus was caught by witnesses beating an elephant with a bullhook. He was charged with cruelty, but the case never went anywhere. I’m sure he’s still out there, whacking away at elephants with his handy little instrument of torture.

  • Dennis Carlson says:

    It’s puzzling that any parent would want their child to think that the abusive treatment of animals is acceptable. Most parents shield their children from cruelty and violence, yet take their kids to see the elephants and tigers being hit with bullhooks (a rod with a sharp metal hook on the end) and whips at the circus.

    Pretending animal abuse does not exist at the circus does not make it any less real; shielding children from the truth is unfair to them and to the animals.

    The elephants at Ringling’s breeding center are confined to barns and paddocks, with access to only a fraction of the 200-acre property. Fifty-seven of the approximately 62 elephants owned by Ringling in 1990 were captured in the wild. At least 24 elephants used by Ringling have died since 1992. The circus has removed more elephants from the wild than it has bred.

    Ringling paid a $20,000 fine to settle charges for the death of Kenny, a baby elephant who was forced to perform despite being sick. The USDA has cited Ringling for failing to have four elephants tested for tuberculosis and for failing to protect food from contamination. Ringling’s Williston, Fla., facility was quarantined by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services because elephants were infected with a human strain of tuberculosis. At least eight of the 24 elephant deaths at Ringling since 1992 have been attributed to either osteoarthritis or a chronic foot problem, the leading cause of death in captive elephants.

    A 4-year-old elephant—who had been removed from his mother when he was only 1 year old—drowned when he stepped into a pond while the circus was traveling through Texas. Ringling trainers admitted that large lesions observed on the legs of two baby elephants, Doc and Angelica, were rope burns caused by separating the infant animals from their mothers.

    Ringling has been cited by the USDA for failing to provide animals with exercise and sufficient space. Ringling opposes legislation that would ban the chaining of elephants. Ringling elephants as young as 16 have developed arthritis, an 8-year-old elephant suffers from foot infections, and a 3-year-old elephant suffers from lameness.

    What more will it take to keep you away?

  • Thanks for all the detailed comments here.

    Our trip to the circus was actually pretty uneventful. The animals were very responsive and the trainers seemed to have everything under control.

    I did not see a bullhook, but there were whips being used, though I didn’t see any animals being hit.

    One thing that was a little odd was the sheer number of times the elephants defecated during the show. At least four did, and two seemed to keep going and going. Kind of gross and the whole crowd gasped.

    This happened mostly when the elephants were lying on their stomachs in an unnatural position.

    Anyone out there know if this is common during a show? Is it indicative of anything?

  • Sandy Byers says:

    Patrick, we too took out grandchildren to the circus in April. I wanted to see the awe I saw in their mother’s eyes 28 years ago. They had a blast, ate the cotton candy, loved the animals. But Danny and I actually did not like that the walking bears appeared to be a human in costume. That bothered us when we realized they were real bears. Wondering if when I was a kid that there was all the alleged abuse of animals? Too bad that in this day and age we could not have developmentally appropriate entertainment in that venue that was safe for the animals and the children.
    Finally, when all was said and done, I ask my grand kids what they liked best. They both replied, “the pony rides”, referring to the before show rides. The pony rides did not bother me as much as the elephant rides since I know that horses are bred to ride passengers. So next time you guys come to town, we should take the kids to a great place I know that has pony rides and a farm to go with them.

  • i just think that this is the way the world is, we train animals because people like to see aniamls do stuff that they normally wouldnt. i dont think its bad i think it shows how intelligent they are. i love the circus and if you dont you need to chill out and not let life get you so mad

  • Earl says:

    Does anyone own a large dog……u dont have to bull hook the dog but you do have to put fear in it so it knows whos boss…..all the hooplah about them being chained its crap…..is it wrong then for one to own a cat that isnt allowed outside?? I know somene will say cats are bred to be indoors….these elephants are breed to preform…jut y thoughts!

  • frank says:

    Just walked in the door after we went to the Circus tonight and my family and i also have questions about the treatment of the animals used in the show. We are hoping that the animals are being taken care of. But from what we seen tonight the animals seem to be fine and by the size of the elephants eating well..

  • lee says:

    I too was concerned for the animals at the circus, however, cruelty is not just at the circus. So if you are going to bash the circus let’s not forget other areas like
    major athletes who fight dogs till death just because the get paid a ridiculous amount of money to play football…so why not ban football games too? And what about movies with animals? Let’s ban movies and the actors also. And what about these animal contests….these animals fly all over for the events in a small cage with cargo…where it’s stuffy and hot….let’s ban those too. What about horse races…where the horses are treated like crap and even put to death if they don’t race well anymore….let’s ban those too….let’s see oh yes, Sea World keeps the orcas, dolphins and many other marine life in a small confinement (compared to how vast the oceans are where they normally live) so let’s ban those places too. Zoo’s should be banned as well they keep animals in spaces that don’t even compare to the wide ranges the animals normally roam free. What about hunting? Let’s make that illegal. But don’t complain when deer, rabbits, squirrels, and whatever else eats your garden What about slaughter houses….I’ve seen aweful things done there….let’s ban those too and everyone in America will just have to become a vegan. I’m sure I could go on and on until majority of American food and cultural events are all gone. It’s unfortunate that abuse of animals goes on but you can’t shut down a circus and get angry at people who take their children there without being a hypocrite. I’m sure some of you have endangered children’s lives by tail gating because you think they should go faster….that is child endangerment. Where’s the passion for the children’s lives and safety? Or you tail gate cause someone is going under the speed limit and so you get mad and tail gate when tail gating is illegal and you want the slow driver to follow the speed limit yet you are being a hypocrite by not following the law either. And I’m sure some of you who have angst for the animals have been cruel to humans. And I am definitely sure some of you have bought houses where animals use to live but were killed or left without their enviroment that they need to survive just so you can have your house in that specific location. That is why a majority of bengal tigers and all asian elephants are only in captivity so that people can have houses, businesses, and whatever else is used from rain forests that causes the unfortunate deforestation which is why these animals are endangered and only live in captivity. It is never ending. And it isn’t the circus so much as the person who is caught being abusive to the animals. Not all circus animal trainers are cruel. With everything you will always have some bad apples. So, you can either get angry all the while being a hypocrite in some way shape or form or you can let organizations like ASPCA do the protecting of the animals in a more civil and legal way and not ridicule people who are just trying to take the children they love and adore to an event they think their children will enjoy. It’s not like these people are encouraging the animals to be abused or by buying a ticket supporting it. That is like saying you support animal cruelty for seeing a movie with animals in it just because you bought a ticket. I work in the film industry and even though they say the animals are not hurt during the filming it is sometimes a lie. Or maybe you paid to see a football game which is then supporting dog fighting because one player, Michael Vick, who fought dogs. So, it’s just my opinion which may mean nothing but it is also something to think about.

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