Politics & Policy

Elephants Take a Bow

Ringling Bros.’ surprising decision to retire its signature animals is good news.

In a victory for those concerned about the humane treatment of animals, Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, announced this week that the circus would phase out the use of elephants in its acts over the next three years.

According to the company’s press release, the 13 elephants “currently traveling with the three Ringling Bros. circus units will be relocated to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida by 2018. There they will join the rest of the Ringling Bros. herd of more than 40 elephants.” The circus will continue to feature performances by other animals, “including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels.” An Associated Press story adds that “more motorsports, daredevils and feats of human physical capabilities will likely be showcased” to replace the elephant acts.

The iconic image of the elephant is closely associated with Ringling and other American circus companies, but in recent years increasing animal activism and a spate of bad publicity has brought attention to the inhumane conditions circus elephants endure. A 2009 video produced by an undercover PETA operation showed Ringling elephants being whipped across the face. A follow-up story in the Washington Post detailed brutal abuses based on evidence collected by a Ringling trainer-turned-whistleblower. In conjunction with several animal-advocacy groups, another former trainer filed suit against the company in 2000. The case and a countersuit were both settled in Ringling’s favor, but the surrounding publicity was not beneficial for the company.

Even apart from violence, the conditions that circus elephants live under are far from ideal. Babies are routinely separated from their mothers at a very early age. Animals that roam up to 50 miles a day in the wild are confined in trucks or small pens almost all the time, frequently developing physical ailments like tuberculosis, arthritis, and (often fatal) foot infections, as well as symptoms of psychological distress.

However, elephants have historically been such a large draw for audiences, who jump at the chance to encounter these majestic animals in real life, that Feld’s announcement comes as something of a shock. Such a significant decision must have a significant cause. So what’s behind the change?

In the Feld Entertainment press release, company officials attribute the new policy to “shifting consumer preferences,” which implies that circusgoers are becoming less interested in seeing elephants perform. (It also seems to leave open the door to reinstating elephant routines if consumer preferences someday shift back.)

It isn’t clear how the company determined that consumer preferences were changing. Perhaps Ringling Bros. has been faced with empty seats — the company has apparently been scheduling fewer shows — possibly because of the protests and publicity campaigns by organizations concerned with animal welfare.

In addition, several states and localities have considered — and some have passed — ordinances affecting elephant shows. For instance, Oakland, Los Angeles, and other cities and counties have banned the use of the bullhook, a sharp stick that Ringling relies on to control its elephants. (Bullhooks are an essential element of “free contact” animal management, with the powerful animal and its handler together in the same space. A kinder form of management preferred by animal sanctuaries and some zoos is “protected contact,” where the animal and person remain separated by a fence, no coercion is used, and actions are only encouraged with positive reinforcement. For obvious reasons, this is not a technique that would work for circuses.) Some cities, such as Asheville, N.C., have banned or considered banning wild-animal acts altogether.

Company officials told the AP that all these “anti-elephant” laws — although they might more aptly be called “pro-elephant” — played a part in their calculations. Ringling’s three traveling circuses visit some 115 locations every year; fighting legislation on so many fronts and planning tours amid evolving regulations got to be too much to handle. President Kenneth Feld told the AP that the company intends to direct its resources instead to the elephant compound it operates in Florida, where it costs $65,000 annually to care for each animal.

The company does not explain why, having come to this decision, it is waiting for three years rather than retiring its touring elephants immediately.

Also left unmentioned in both the press release and the AP story is Blackfish, the 2013 documentary about the orcas at SeaWorld that has contributed to a sharp drop in revenue and stock value for the chain of aquatic theme parks. (Blackfish can be watched on Netflix and Amazon.) It is surely not hard for members of the Feld family to imagine a similar P.R. disaster engulfing their own company, and it is understandable that they would want to get out ahead of it.

Why should conservatives care about elephants in circuses? First, there is the moral case. In recent decades, scientists studying elephants have demonstrated the intelligence and extraordinary memory of elephants, the complexity of their societies, and the depth and richness of their emotional lives. Elephants are one of very few animals known to pass the “mirror test,” one way of gauging whether an animal has a sense of self. While these are not the sole barometers of moral worth, they are powerful indicators of something to be treated with great respect. Such creatures are meant to be in the wild; they clearly do not belong in pens and chains. (For a survey of the science and the debate about the moral status of elephants, you might read my New Atlantis essay “Do Elephants Have Souls?”)

Second, several writers have been articulating a conservative case for rethinking our relationship with and responsibilities to the animal kingdom. Matthew Scully, the speechwriter, has written eloquently about animals here on NRO, in The Atlantic, and in his 2002 book Dominion. The essayist Mary Eberstadt has provocatively asked in First Things, “Why aren’t vegetarians and pro-lifers more closely aligned?” Charles Camosy, a professor of ethics and theology at Fordham University, drew on Judeo-Christian teachings in his 2013 book For Love of Animals. These and other writers are encouraging conservatives to think seriously about our obligations to our fellow creatures, moving beyond a sometimes reflexive disdain for such issues.

Third, the Ringling announcement yesterday can be seen as a real victory for civic engagement and consumer pressure. A handful of city ordinances promoted by concerned citizen activists was apparently enough to effect a major policy change at the world’s biggest live-entertainment company.

And finally, the elephant is the symbol of the Republican party, after all. (Though in a nice bit of irony, one of Ringling’s youngest elephants, Barack, is named for the leader of the Democratic party.) Originally used by political cartoonists in the 1870s as a way of mocking Republicans, the elephant was eventually adopted as the party’s mascot; it remains on the RNC seal and the party branding. The Republican party was born in a fight for human dignity and freedom, and continues to profess those ideals. Republicans ought to care about circus elephants precisely because their choice of mascot is so fitting: The elephant is an animal of immense dignity, and it ought to be wild and free, not beaten and chained to perform tricks for our amusement.

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