Big Top Brawl: Ringling Bros. sparks protests over elephant abuse (with a lengthy disgression related to the depravity of SeaWorld).


Hey, kids: The circus is coming to town! I bet you can’t wait, right? Sure. It is reasonable to assume that we have all had some type of fascination with circuses at some time in our lives, and why not? The visual spectacle of exotic animals and aerial artistry makes a profound impact on the minds of kids; for most, it is the first truly huge, overwhelmingly awesome event of their lives. For most people, it’s just a passing fancy, a relic of childhood soon displaced in our minds by visions of comely contortionists, chicken geekery and other Jim Rose-style freaky, while many are instantly hooked, and remain so forever.

Either way, the circus facilitates our collective introduction into the carny arts and ignites a creative spark that never really goes away. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is the gold-standard of such operations, and it rarely fails to draw rapturous crowds as it packs every venue it hits on the road. A business that began in rickety canvas tents, waterproofed with highly-flammable chemicals, now commands top dollar in some of America’s biggest and most-prestigious arenas, from Madison Square Garden on down. Fans come from miles around for the acrobats and the clowns, but what really masses the marks are the animal acts—specifically, the lions, tigers and elephants. It is this, the most popular aspect of their operation, that has proven the most controversial, and a local organization is working to make sure their latest visit to Northeast Florida does not come off without a hitch.

Jax Protest takes a narrow, specific focus on what they characterize as the maltreatment of elephants trained to perform under the big top. Their website is replete with relevant data, as well as pictures that speak for themselves. “For animals in circuses,” they write, “there is no such thing as ‘positive reinforcement’—only varying degrees of punishment and deprivation. To force them to perform these meaningless and physically uncomfortable tricks, trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks and other painful tools of the trade. In the Ringling Bros. circus, elephants are beaten, hit, prodded and jabbed with sharp hooks, sometimes until bloody. Ringling breaks the spirit of elephants when they’re vulnerable babies who should still be with their mothers.” Brutal stuff, all of which Ringling denies, of course.

The group denounces Ringling not only for the harshness of their training methods, but also for the conditions in which the animals are forced to live, work and travel: “Constant travel means that animals are confined to boxcars, trailers, or trucks for days at a time in extremely hot and cold weather … Elephants, big cats, bears, and primates are confined to cramped and filthy cages in which they eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and urinate—all in the same place. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus boasts that its two units travel more than 25,000 miles as the circus tours the country for 11 months each year. Ringling’s own documents reveal that on average, elephants are chained for more than 26 hours straight and are sometimes continually chained for as many as 60 to 100 hours.”

“JaxProtest members are a 100% volunteer group,” they write. “We come together to help those who have no voice. We are teachers, MMA fighters, web designers, stay at home mothers, retired military, students and everyone in between.” The group plans to protest all seven of Ringling Bros. planned performances at the Veterans Memorial Arena downtown, which are spread out over four days between January 19 and 22. To this end, they have partnered with like-minded organizations like the Girls Gone Green, the Animal Rights Foundation and OccupyJax. Headhunter Muai Thai also supports Jax Protest; the fact that some of its members train there makes for a nice counter to the widespread perception of animal-rights activists as, well, geeks. (They’re in the Relson Gracie Academy on Beach Blvd., and worth checking out.) It also makes sense, given the elephant’s prominent positioning within Thai culture. Another collaborator, the Lotus Elephant Sanctuary, has gone so far as to begin preparations to establish its own wild elephant preserve in Laos.

I’m not much of a circus fan (though I do try to catch the awesome all-black Universoul Circus on their yearly swing through the area). While the animal-rights aspect of the argument is plenty compelling, for me the issue pivots on the question of children’s rights—specifically, the right to not be traumatized by these periodic animal freak-out sessions that have, on occasion, been precipitated by the mistreatment of animals. If an animal ran amok in the crowd or maimed its handler in the presence of kids, that outfit should be banned from that particular city forever, and investigations should immediately commence into any possible causalities. Ringling has a responsibility to lead on this issue, so that smaller circuses cannot use any laxity up-top as an excuse for failure down below.

Ringling has so far been able to avoid the disgusting, depraved moral and ethical lapses of SeaWorld, whose executives are some of the biggest pieces of scumbag trash anywhere in the United States today—and if you know any of them, please tell them I said so! The Tilikum debacle should have been sufficient to shut the whole thing down. Instead they were able the a) basically bury the negligent homicide of their own employee by claiming the victim got herself killed through her own incompetence, then b) keep a killer whale known to be lethally-dangerous to its own species and to people (including its closest human companion) performing for the public, whose children will absolutely be forced to watch that thing kill again, on their dime.

Ringling Brothers should be mindful of the piss-poor example set by SeaWorld (not to be confused with “Sea World”, an entirely unrelated Australian company that does pretty much the exact same thing, but better and safer—they like to make that clear). Tilikum was born in the wild, abducted at age two, separated from his family and forced to live with older, non-related orcas that physically abused him on a regular basis. He was trained at Sealand in Canada, using methods that included deliberate starvation, and perhaps worse.

It was there where he killed a 20 year-old female trainer in 1991; it was deemed it an accident—he didn’t do it, he just helped the others do it—and they kept him working. Like a pedophile priest, he was transferred—appropriately enough, to Florida, a state that openly, gleefully encourages the presence of all violent predatory animals, even those that aren’t human. Whether his history raised any red flags, or whether his new handlers were even informed of that history, remains unclear, but since this is Florida we can presume they did know, and just didn’t care. Well, obviously, they don’t care, and never did—we have the public record to tell us that.

They found a man’s naked body in his tank in 1999. SeaWorld said the guy sneaked in drunk, which implies that they kept a known killer under such lax protection that someone could get into the tank when the park was closed, even if they were drunk and naked. Luckily, it was not some intrepid pipsqueak looking to get a closer look at the beautiful orca, or a terrorist hoping to channel Tilikum’s insane killing power for jihad. His third killing, in 2010, fit the modus operandi of the first: grabbed by the orca and thrown around the pool until dead. Dawn Brancheau was a 16-year veteran who knew this beast better than anyone, so she didn’t die quick, unfortunately for her; her jaw, ribs and neck were broken and her spinal cord severed before she drowned, paralyzed, at the bottom.

At least a dozen people had to watch that woman die, but were powerless to save her. It was SeaWorld’s job to keep her safe, and they neglected that duty so profoundly that the park’s continued existence is a disgrace. Brancheau should be a martyr for workplace safety, and the video of her death should be made public, so Americans will understand the pressing need to put these people out of business. Instead, OSHA issued a whitewashed report, a bullshit $75,000 fine, and Tilikum was back entertaining the masses a year later. As the kids say, “OMG!” Suffice to say SeaWorld is so depraved, even Tommy Lee has voiced concerns.

Among the dozens of serious attacks on humans by killer whales, only one has happened in the wild, and that was in 1972. Either the captivity contributes to the aggression, or humans have somehow successfully captured only the most violent specimens. One should note here that Tilikum, who’s spent 28 of his 30 years captive, is himself implicated in 75% of all documented human deaths related to orcas, which makes a compelling case for causalityg. In this increasingly unstable economy, all it takes is one unfortunate incident to torpedo a company, even one as big, as rich and as historic as the Greatest Show On Earth. Just one more elephant, or a single overly aggressive lion, could do to the entire circus industry what fires, economic depression, two world wars and brutal train-wrecks could not: Kill business forever. So, it’s probably best not to beat them, right? Sure. We’ll see how that works out for them.; January 2, 2012

3 responses »

  1. You are aware that the Australian Sea World park, which in your own words does pretty much the exact same thing as SeaWorld Orlando does only better and safer, does not have Killer Whales, you knew that right?

    And for anyone to say the the park’s continued existence is a disgrace because of one terrible accident, and lets face it that’s all it was, an accident, is one of the most ignorant and absurd things I’ve ever read. I think the 5,700 people that the park employees and their families would highly disagree with your statement as well. Maybe Carnival Cruise lines should stop all of their sailings from Port Canaveral because there was a cruise ship accident in Italy.

    “Just one more elephant, or a single overly aggressive lion, could do to the entire circus industry what fires, economic depression, two world wars and brutal train-wrecks could not: Kill business forever” Kind of like what happened to SeaWorld? I assume that was the comparison you were attempting to make since you spent half of this idiotic article discussing the otherwise completely unrelated SeaWorld accident. Well how has that accident affected business for them? They recently gave all employees raises based on record profits in 2011, and have seen record attendance numbers making the park one of the most attended theme parks in the world. If anything maybe an angry elephant is good for business!

    Again, stating that the park’s continued existence is a disgrace as a result of one accident might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever read, but then again the person who said it also compared a whale to pedophile priest so dumb shouldn’t be very surprising.

  2. My eldest daughter worked at San Diego Seaworld, but only was able to tolerate it for a few months. She had a great position there, but quickly began to comprehend how terribly stressed the animals were — most especially the dolphins and the orcas. She quit, in sadness and disgust. Your article is right on the money,and I commend you for bringing this to people’s attention. The only point I disagree with you on is your apparent lax attitude towards the “higher ups” at Ringling. Just Google “Kenneth Feld” if you want more than your share of one sick, depraved individual. Unreal. God forgive us for what we do to these animals…

  3. Ross,
    1) True, Australian Sea World does not have killer whales–one way in which it meets the definition of “better and safer”. I mentioned them only because they have been careful to distinguish between themselves and the more well-known American company. I would encourage SeaWorld to follow their lead and eliminate orcas from their operations, as well.

    2) My distaste for SeaWorld puts me in the minority, which is fine. What you characterize as an “accident”, I characterize as recklessness bordering on criminal, and OSHA seemed inclined to agree. The 5,700 employees and their families surely disagree, because if they didn’t they’d be fired like previous whistle-blowers. If they shared my position, but still worked there, then they would be effecting a moral compromise on themselves, which would not be fun to live with.

    3) I certainly hope nothing terrible ever happens at SeaWorld (again) or at Ringling Bros. But my position is that their methods will lead to something awful eventually. The phase “kill business forever” was not meant as comparison to anything, because it’s never happened.

    4) The priest analogy fit perfectly, in my opinion: Innocent kids being put in a position to eventually be traumatized so some corrupt company can turn a profit. Not everyone sees anything wrong with it, but there’s very little in the world that can’t be excused or justified by someone, especially the perpetrator.

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