Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus has kicked off its summer touring season in San Diego this weekend amid rampant protests. Animal rights groups coordinate year-round to make sure there is representation at each performance, but the summer dates seem to be the most important, garnering the most press. California appears to be the biggest battleground for protests against the Ringling Brothers Tours, with the controversy heating up as activists aim to expose what they say is the truth about the circus’ animal training practices.
In recent years, videos have surfaced exposing the treatment of performing animals in circuses such as Ringling Brothers, and public outrage has followed suit. A back-and-forth legal battle between the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s holding company has been raging since 2000. The ASPCA sued Feld Entertainment in that year, charging the company with mistreatment of their performing elephants and referring to The Endangered Species and Animal Welfare acts to plead its case.
In the meantime, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other activist groups sent operatives to work at Ringling Brothers and record the treatment specifically of the performing elephants during training. While the legal cases remained open for many years, public opinion was heavily influenced by these videos. A particularly graphic video surfaced in 2009, showing elephants being beaten with bullhooks and baby elephants forced into performing positions while restrained by ropes and trainers. Warning – the video below is graphic may not be suitable for sensitive viewers.
This video gave rise to another lawsuit from the ASPCA, which was dismissed under a gag order from Feld’s lawyers, which forced the court not to use testimony from former employees of the company.
In addition to the lawsuits brought against Ringling Brothers, the USDA also inspected the circus’ training grounds and issued fines in 2011 of up to $270,000. Allegedly, the largest of such fines in United States history, the USDA also cited the Animal Welfare Act in its findings.
In November of 2012, Feld Entertainment/Ringling Brothers won their countersuit against the ASPCA for malicious prosecution, and the court awarded the 107-year-old company $9.3 million. In the 14 years since the first lawsuit, however, public opinion of Ringling Brothers and circuses, which use live performing animals, seems to have been irreparably damaged, and activist groups are not slowing down in their protest efforts.
During the 16 years in which the ASPCA, PETA, the USDA and Ringling Brothers have been arguing over the company’s treatment of its performing animals, there has been a shift in circus culture in general. Canadian performance troupe Cirque du Soleil was the first circus act, which only used human performers to gain worldwide notoriety. Since then a number of similar shows have cropped up in the mainstream, and many notable circuses which had previously used animals, such as Circus Vargas, made the decision to remove performing animals from their shows. What’s more, circuses with live animals have been banned outright in England and other EU countries.
As the culture of and attitude towards traveling entertainment has changed, many wonder if Ringling Brothers and shows like it will lose the battle to keep animals in traveling performance shows. Animal advocate groups certainly hope this will be the case, as the protests against Ringling Brothers heat up in California for the summer touring season. The opening shows in San Diego from Aug. 6-10 saw record protester turnouts, while attendance to the actual shows seemed to dwindle, according to protest organizer Ellen Ericksen. Ericksen is a California-based independent organizer who is affiliated with numerous animal rights groups.
Ringlingbeatsanimals.com helps coordinate protests at each of the stops on the Ringling tour, linking organizers like Ericksen with information, materials and eager protesters to fill out the line. Efforts are also coordinated through Facebook events and groups such as Occupy Ringling Brothers. Through these large networks, Ringling and Feld Entertainment can be sure the protesters will be there on their subsequent stops in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Bakersfield this summer.
Since the decisions on the Ringling Brothers/Feld Entertainment lawsuits in 2012, the goal of protesters has shifted. While the ASPCA and PETA may continue to fight the circus giant in court, groups like Ringlingbeatsanimals.com and Occupy Ringling Brothers prefer a more grassroots approach, trying to make themselves a visible presence at each stop along Ringling’s way. Protesters also try to get as much information about Ringling Brothers into the hands of the public during the California tour so they can turn up the heat on the company and possibly change a few minds about the circus. In the meantime, it looks like both sides are digging their heels in on this issue. However, because of protesters and a general shift in public perception, the days of performing animals in circuses may be numbered.
By Layla Klamt