(This photo of the elephant is one I recently took in Botswana; free and with his family — the way all wildlife should be.)
While enjoying a delicious vegan dinner at Millennium Restaurant in Oakland with a friend and fellow animal advocate (Kristie Middleton), we got a text: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was closing its doors! We laughed. We cried. We toasted.
We were two of the many activists (full props to Cheri Shankar, activist extraordinaire in Los Angeles) involved in working with Oakland city council members in 2015 to ban the bullhook, a weapon that inflicts pain and fear upon elephants to make them perform such unnatural acts as standing on their head. Oakland passed the ban, and soon after, Feld Entertainment, owner of Ringling Bros., announced that they would be removing elephants from their shows. A victory for elephants, no doubt.
But there was more work to do, and activists in cities around the country wasted no time working to ban all wild animal acts from circuses. Facing the prospect of spending millions of dollars defending an archaic and cruel form of entertainment, Ringling Bros. announced that it would be closing its doors altogether. A major victory for animals, no doubt, but much work remains to be done.
Entire countries have banned wild animals acts, including Mexico, Peru, Greece, Netherlands, and many others, and the United States would do well to do the same before another opportunistic company seeks to fill Ringling‘s void. This will probably be impossible on a federal level with the current administration, but we can do it state by state. At least for today— for a few days—we can at least revel in the awareness that the arc of history bends toward compassion and that thousands of animals will be spared humiliation, confinement, fear, and violence.
Jack London for the Animals
We were not the first residents of Oakland to express concern about the treatment of circus animals. 100 years ago, after witnessing the abuse that takes place against performing animals in circuses, our most iconic figure, our own Jack London—author and social activist—wrote two novels (Jerry of the Islands and Michael, Brother of Jerry) to spread awareness to the public about performing animals. In the foreword for these novels, he wrote, “I have a strong stomach and a hard head, but what turns my head and makes my gorge rise is the cold-blooded, conscious deliberate cruelty and torment that is manifest behind ninety-nine of every hundred trained-animal turns. Cruelty as a fine art, has attained its perfect flower in the trained-animal world.”
Because of the awareness he created, the public spoke up, and in 1925, Ringling Barnum and Bailey Circus withdrew all trained animal acts from their performance schedules and remained animal-free for almost five years. Unfortunately, they brought back the animals, but this time, they’re closing their doors for good.
Feld Entertainment, the owners of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has said in press conferences that animal rights groups should not claim the circus’ closing as a victory—that “this is not a win for animal rights activists. This is not a win for anyone.” I beg to differ. This is a win for the animals. This is a win for every individual who won’t be sold or bred only to live a life of prodding, performing, abuse, fear, and pain. This is a win for the animals, who have—vis a vis their own suffering—put $2.7 billion into the pockets of Kenneth Feld, which is what he is purported to be worth. This is a win for every animal who has ever been separated from their family to be exploited and forced to perform for humans.
This is a win for animals, indeed. And once you’ve properly toasted, it’s time to put away the champagne, and write some more history. We’ve got more work to do.
For the animals,