The news that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus will no longer tour America is a blow for all Americans whose fond memories of childhood included a day at the circus, and for future generations who will never have the opportunity to share this special experience.
The circus showed millions of Americans how humans and animals can bond and interact. It brought us a sense of wonder, it showed how interaction with animals can sometimes be unpredictable, and it gave us a chance to see animals we’d never see otherwise. Losing Ringling Brothers puts another brick in the wall that increasingly separates most Americans from interactions with a variety of animals. These interactions are built upon an understanding and respect for the fundamental differences between animals and humans, and it’s what makes the bond with animals so special.
Ringling Brothers circuses were notable because of their high level of commitment to scientific expertise, research, and understanding of the animals they worked with. They did not humanize elephants; they respected them. Through their elephant conservation centers in Florida and Sri Lanka, they devoted millions of dollars to elephant conservation and research and funded cutting edge research worldwide to advance scientific understanding of the animals they sought to preserve.
In recent years, the circus became the center of hateful campaigns by radical animal rights groups rejecting science-based animal care in favor of political agendas and self-proclaimed expertise. Thousands of well-meaning but misinformed individuals joined the bullying and legislative campaigns to stop circus parades or even to prevent use of tools, such as guides often mischaracterized as bullhooks, that humanely protected the safety of the animals and onlookers and made the public experiences possible.
Ringling Brothers was vindicated in federal courts after animal rights groups falsely accused them of cruel practices, and used litigation to pursue fraudulent claims against the circus. In 2012, American Society for Prevention of Cruelty (ASPCA) paid $9.3 million to settle their portion of these damages to Feld. In 2014, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) settled a Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) lawsuit for $15 million after it became clear that HSUS and others had made false claims about animal cruelty by Ringling Brothers, including paying a witness to lie in court about animal care at the Ringling Brothers facilities.
Despite these wins, the challenges for the circus continued. In 2016 alone, dozens of communities around the country sought bans on the use of bullhooks or animal acts based on misinformation by extreme animal protection groups. Falsehoods about animal cruelty easily captured the imagination of a public with little animal experience or reference point to judge appropriate animal care.
In 2016, Ringling Brothers announced it would retire all its elephants to its conservation centers, foreshadowing the final closing of the circus announced Saturday.
The loss of the circus represents the damage that hatred, extremism and bullying can cause to science, the public good, and the human-animal bond.
The groups that fraudulently attacked Ringling Brothers continue to attack dog breeders as “cruel puppy mills”. For the sake of our animals and the future of the human- animal bond, let’s learn from this tragedy, take time to ask tough questions about bullying attacks on animal enterprises, and ensure this situation never happens again.