Dumbo’s Final Bow: The end of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus circles back to the exploitation of animals in entertainment


Elliot Choy

REMEMBERING THE PAST: Junior Joanna Zhang reminisces her past experiences at the circus with balloons reminding her of her childhood trip. Zhang said while there is some awareness of animal cruelty in the entertainment industry, there is not enough.

Lin-Lin Mo, Feature reporter

Going to the circus isn’t as common now as it was last century, but Joanna Zhang, Action for Animals club leader and junior, said she enjoyed the throwback form of entertainment since her parents took her to a show many years ago.

Zhang said, “The whole experience is really crowded but sort of exciting because you see some fun performances. I mean, as a kid, I thought I was really excited. The only one I remember is the Ringling Bros. (show) in Indianapolis in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.”

However, Zhang said she had a moment of clarity.

“I didn’t think much to it because at the time I was young, but I definitely didn’t enjoy it like as you would expect in a circus. I more thought of it as those animals didn’t seem that happy,” Zhang said.

Despite the sentiment and culture the circus brought, “The Greatest Show on Earth” will give its final bows on May 21 after relentless attempts by animal rights organizations to shut it down. But the closing is only one victory in a larger war for them.

March 3, U.N. World Wildlife Day, aims to tackle major issues for wildlife like over-exploitation. Although Ringling Bros.’ dropout is considered a victory by many, the end is not on the horizon yet. World Animal Protection, an organization spearheading talks about animal cruelty in the tourism industry, launched its “Wildlife. Not Entertainers” campaign in 2015 to fight against this issue.

Elizabeth Hogan, U.S. Oceans and Wildlife Campaign Manager of World Animal Protection, said via email global tourism is expected to grow to 1.8 billion tourists in 13 years. Though notable benchmarks in public awareness were made, Hogan said, “We estimate that approximately 110 million people globally still visit cruel wildlife tourist attractions each year, mostly unaware of the animal abuse involved.”

Sophomore Bella Galardi has never been to an animal circus before, and she said she never will because of personal morals. She said she agrees with Hogan that the Ringling Brothers’ demise will not end animal cruelty in entertainment right now and said it may not ever go away.

“I don’t think you can really stop animal cruelty. There’s always going to be someone who’s like, ‘Oh I’m gonna get the animal to do backflip and people are gonna pay me a lot of money for it.’ There’s always going to be that person that can see something else for their personal gain and there’s not really a way you can get rid of it,” Galardi said.

She said the personal ban from wildlife entertainment is also affected by her firsthand encounter with animal cruelty.

Galardi said, “(Animal cruelty) bothers me because, well, I had to move one time because the people that owned where I lived used to kick our dog—because he bit them once when they were messing with him—so that’s kind of where it comes from for me. Besides moral ethics to it—you should treat everything equally—it also comes from seeing my personal, loved pets being treated horribly.”

Hard-hitting stories of animal abuse in tourism entertainment, like Tilikum, the SeaWorld orca that died this January in Orlando, or Kenny, the three-year-old Asian elephant of the big top that died overnight in 1998, have fueled objections against the practice backed up by psychological analyses of circus animals.

Hogan said, “A life in tourist entertainment is no life for a wild animal. Around the world, wildlife including elephants, tigers and lions are taken from the wild when they are young or bred in captivity in the name of tourist entertainment. Every day, wild animals in entertainment suffer as a result of capture, transportation, training, breeding and poaching. They endure harsh and intensive training to force them to perform and interact with people, living their whole lives in cruel captive conditions.”

Hogan continued, “What’s more, captivity stops wild animals from expressing their natural behavior and permanently damages their physiological and psychological well-being. There are thousands of wild animals caught up in this cruel industry, and the intensity and duration of their suffering is simply unacceptable.”

Zhang said, “Not only have the elephant acts fallen from their former glory, people are not interested in this form of entertainment anymore.”

“People didn’t really like watching it, and also because of some backlash against (animal acts), they had to make the acts less interesting. People didn’t want to watch it even more because they just did really simple tricks to keep the animals, but it sort of alienated both the audience and animal rights activists,” Zhang said.

However, Zhang said she has reached a new outlook on circuses since her first encounter with trapeze artists and ringmasters.

“I think there’s some awareness (of animal cruelty in circuses), but not enough, because people focus more on things that are more in the news such as SeaWorld and people wearing fur, so that sort of gets put on the back of people’s minds,” Zhang said. “I would say, especially if they don’t treat the animals properly, then… I discourage people from going.