Selling Utopia: Rewriting The History Of Wolves In America For Public Consumption

I’ve been in this game long enough that I’m always shocked when someone comes to me with a story of animal exploitation that I’ve never heard of. And yet, it happens, far more often I’d like. There is, apparently, an inexhaustible number of people eagerly awaiting their chance to “teach” the public about the animals they’re exploiting. Which brings me to the Great American Frontier Show: Wolves of the World. I had never heard of the show, which was founded by a man named Michael Sandlofer, a number of years ago. Mr. Sandlofer passed away in 2016, so I will be as respectful as possible in the writing of this article. The article will, however, be honest, and forthright.

The Sandlofers have owned and trained captive wild animals for entertainment purposes for decades. They even had performing bison at one point. From as early as 1979, they’ve had animal shows performing for audiences, at a price, while claiming the animals were all “rescues” and that they were “educating” people.

Finding articles about the Sandlofers and their shows was easy, but I quickly learned that none of those articles contained more information than that the show was “educational”. Those claims were accompanied by quotes from either Michael, or Sharon like “Wolves are the most misunderstood animals in the world.” and “If you look at wolves up close, you’ll see that their two center toes are longer than the others,” Sandlofer said. “That gives them better traction when they’re on the hunt.” and this gem “Many just don’t understand the pyramid of life cycle and the part these wolves play,”. That last one got a long snarly breath out of me, because by just a few articles into my research, the doublespeak and incorrect information provided made it clear that 1) the Sandlofers did not, and do not, actually know much about wolves, and wolf biology, and 2) the interviewers and authors of the articles either didn’t know, or didn’t care, enough to fact check the information provided by the Sandlofers.

For example, Michael and his wife are described as “having been involved with animal rescue and conservation for decades”. However, aside from Mr. Sandlofer’s participation in the saving of a beached whale back in 1981 (totally commendable) there are no references to the Sandlofers “rescuing” animals by anyone other than the Sandlofers themselves. And while the Sandlofers claim that their animals come from “an animal rescue organization” I have been unable to find any rescue group who works with them, nor have I been able to find where the Sandlofers have ever named the organization.  At the time of the whale incident, Michael Sandlofer was a deep sea dive instructor and worked with the North Wind Museum, which he founded in 1979. The North Wind ran the “All-Star Animal Revue and Circus” for a number of years.

Most articles note that Sandlofer was “awarded the prestigious Rolex Award” for his conservation efforts. However, when I went to the Rolex site, and checked their records, Mr. Sandlofer is not listed as a Laureate (winner) of any Rolex award, in any year. I did, however, find this write up, which clearly states that he received an honorable mention from the award in 1984. Still noteworthy, and respectful, but it’s not the same as actually being named a Laureate.

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I finally decided it was probably best to just check out actual videos of the Sandlofers’ show. So I spent about three hours, cumulatively, watching Sharon put on the Wolves of the World show. I also watched a great many commercial-style video spots of Michael Sandlofer hocking his show, encouraging fair grounds and entertainment facilities to book them because of the “huge crowds” they draw. The performances I watched ranged from the years 2012 to 2016 and took place all across the country, captured by attendees. At least one was put on by the Sandlofer’s daughter, Benna. Here are some fast bullet points I got from all my screen time, which I’ll explore further.

  • The shows run about 20-30 minutes, but on average, 15+ minutes of that time is spent simply introducing the animals one at a time, or in sets. Many shows state specifically that all of the animals are Eastern Timber wolves.
  • Sharon is the primary handler. Her husband refers to her as the “Wolf Whisperer” *cough* *Lion Whisperer influence* *cough*
  • Both Sandlofers repeatedly use the term “positive reinforcement” to describe what they call their “training method” while also repeatedly stating that “you don’t train wolves”.
  • They call the actions that the animals perform “behaviors” rather than “tricks” insisting that they are all “natural behaviors” while also stating that they “train” the animals “to perform the behaviors for their enrichment.” But each time they say this, they add “but you don’t really train wolves.”
  • About half the meager wolf biology and scientific information provided by Sharon is either wrong, or extremely simplified and misleading.
  • The shows always ends with Sharon offering the audience the chance to (for more money) take photos with “a wolf pup” and “tour their “den” trailer”.
  • Despite that the Sandlofers repeatedly refer to their animals as wolves, and as “the pack” I found no evidence that the animals are ever housed together in a functional pack, even off the road.
  • From 2012-2016 the script of the show remains virtually unchanged, with Sharon reciting the same lines over and over again, almost verbatim, despite that over those years, science’s understanding of wolves has increased and changed. The only real alterations are in the backstories of some of the animals. But the new information provided often directly conflicts with the biographies and information given in previous shows, indicating that the Sandlofers change facts to suit situations.

The main shtick of the Wolves of the World show (aside from being the “Only traveling wolf pack in America”) is that wolves are “the most misunderstood animal in the world”. In addition to being a painfully hackneyed phrase, it simply isn’t true. There are thousands of misunderstood animals in our world. The wolf is just one of them. To describe the wolves and their importance to the environment as being “misunderstood” by Americans is like saying Jews and their importance to humanity was “misunderstood” by Hitler. The hatred and savagery directed at wolves in American history has little to do with them being misunderstood, and everything to do with them being blamed for things they had nothing to do with, and thusly sanctioned for annihilation. And just as with the Holocaust, wolves were systematically exterminated for their perceived worthlessness. Sandlofer, when she does touch on the subject–something that doesn’t even happen in every show–states that wolves were targeted for hunting because “man saw them as competition”. That is, to put it mildly, an extremely narrow and simplistic perception of the matter, and a largely modern interpretation of modern wolf conservation issues, not historical ones.

In the 1700s, explorers were not concerned with the idea that wolves were going to eat all of their deer or other food staples. In the 1800s settlers were not concerned with sharing food with wolves, so much as saving their livestock from the perceived danger of wolf attack. During hard winters, this ended up being a literal danger. In the 1900s, professional wolf hunters were not concerned with how many deer a wolf pack ate, so much as how many dollars they could get for each wolf killed.

The mass extermination of wolves was driven, not by their “competition” with human hunters, but by the desire for cold hard money, as well as old world fears and hatred, which early settlers brought with them from Europe, where wolves had already been effectively exterminated by 1680 in Scotland, 1786 in Ireland 1707 in Switzerland, and so on. By the late 1800s, wolves were all but extinct in most European countries, and those still alive had been driven into Russia.

True wolf extermination efforts in America did not even begin until the 1870s, and that period of violence lasted up into the 1950s. 

To present the idea that wolves were killed by “settlers” because they were viewed as “competition” for a food source, or perceived as dangerous to humans, implants visions such as this into the minds of listeners:

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When in reality, the intentional butchering of wolves is a much more recent event, and one that was driven by outright hatred, monetary gain, and sport. (both historical and modern wolf extermination shown here)

Sandlofer’s noble intonement that “Native Americans were really the only people who truly understood wolves. They thought of the wolf as their brother.” is also an idealistic fabrication of “white thinking” (usually presented while mood-setting Native American pipe soundtracks are played for the audience) The relationship between American Indian Nations and the wolf was, and remains, complex and deep, and not always friendly. Some Nations admire the wolf and respect it, but rather than see wolves as “brothers” they see them as warrior spirits which can be invoked by wearing wolf hides, or tails tied to themselves as they go into battle. The Cheyenne Wolf Warrior society are an example of this.

Other Nations, most notably the Navajo, feared, and continue to fear, wolves, believing them to be human witches in disguise. They believed that a Navajo witch became a wolf by donning the skin of a hunted wolf. Navajo werewolves are, even today, often blamed for murders, mutilated bodies, and raiding graveyards.

Unlike Sandlofer’s presentation of American Indians taming wolves and turning them into todays breeds (it should be noted that there are many dog breeds older than the recorded history of North American Natives) the reality is that bringing wolves into camp rarely worked out, as the camp dogs (which Sandlofer’s timeline insinuates wouldn’t have existed yet) killed the pups, or superstitious tribe members stole them away and cast them out. It was far more common, particularly amongst the Cree, for children to find a wolf den, and approach it, at which time the adults would move away–with no recorded attacks on the children–and then the children would dig the pups out and play with them before returning them to their den, and retreating so that the adults to return.

To get back to the “educational” value of Wolves of the World, Sandlofer repeatedly says that you “don’t train wolves, you ask them to do something and hope they do it”, while at the same time openly giving the wolves verbal instructions, and rewarding them with food when they obey, which is the literal process for training through positive reinforcement. The conflict of her statements is obvious. She is, in fact, training the wolves. Or, to be more correct, the wolfdogs.

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Czechoslovakian wolfdog.

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Image of the Sandlofer’s animals taken from this undated article, where they’re described as Timber wolves.

It’s obvious to anyone with some expertise that virtually every animal in the Wolves of the World show, is actually a captive bred wolfdog, not a full-blooded wolf. Despite that the show describes the pack as “all Eastern Timber wolves” in this 2012 video, none of the animals are full-blooded wolves.

In contrast wolfdogs (as I suspected most, if not all of the Sandlofers animals were when I first saw them) are the product of multiple generations of selective breeding between other wolfdogs in a manner which sustains a high percentage of wolf genetics, but provides a more doglike personality, and tractability. Because domestic dogs were taxonomically recategorized in 1993 as a subspecies of Canus lupus, wolfdog proponents say that they’re no different from other domestic dogs, and wolfdog are now recognized by the UCA. If you follow I.C.A.R.U.S. you’ll know our position on this matter. I have included informational links on wolfdogs to show the definitive differences between them, and captive wolves, for the purpose of this article. And this article is not about wolfdogs, it’s about the misrepresentation of wolves by the Sandlofers in their show.

In order to confirm my hunch about the wolfdogs, I sought out and subsequently secured the expertise of an established professional within the wolfdog community. They were, understandably, dubious about speaking with me, considering I.C.A.R.U.S.’s position. However, when I explained my situation, they were willing to help me, as the misrepresentation of wolves, and wolfdogs, is bad business for anyone devoted to genuine conservation.

My contact was able not only to confirm that at least four of the Sandlofer’s main animals (Cody, the “hero wolf” Phoenix, Cheyenne, and another unnamed animal) are, in fact, wolfdogs, but also that those four animals were not “rescued” by the Sandlofers. They were, in reality, bought by Sharon and her husband a number of years ago. Furthermore, my source was given to understand that sometime shortly after the Sandlofers purchased the animals and began describing them as “rescues” they were approached by the former owner, and asked to refrain from calling the animals “rescues” since they had been purchased.

Yet, in virtually every video, or interview I found about the Sandlofers they steadfastly, through the years, have continued to describe their animals as “all rescues”. Likely, this is because “rescues” are far more sympathetic to the audience than purchased animals. The Sandlofer’s daughter, Benna, goes even a step further in this 2014 video, not only repeatedly calling all of the animals “wolves” but also stating that a number of them are “wolves” people got as pets, and then became afraid of and couldn’t handle. As none of the Sandlofer animals are even full wolves, this is, apparently, another fabrication of fact, possibly to then allow the Sandlofers to “encourage” conservation by suggesting that wolves don’t make good pets. Which is true, but irrelevant, since the Sandlofers don’t have full blooded wolves.

The only bit of truth, it seems, to the Sandlofers’ backstories of their animals, is the rescue story wherein Cody saved a child from drowning. That, my source stated, they knew to be a true story. My contact went on to say that as far as they know, Sharon still keeps her ear out within the wolfdog community for any animals that might be available to secure and add to the show. It is not, my source explained, uncommon for many of the “sanctuaries” which offer “wolf” interactions, to shop around for wolfdogs and wolfdog puppies to purchase for their programs, as wolfdogs are more outgoing, where wolves are incredibly shy, and wolfdogs are much more inclined to follow an established routine, when properly socialized and trained.

This is not surprising for those of us who are aware of the duplicity of pseudo-sanctuaries, but it was enlightening to hear it from the “opposite side of the fence” as it were, and I’m grateful to my contact for all the help they provided to me.

In the 2012 video, the animals Sandlofer refers to as “the boys” are all wolfdogs, bred in captivity and derived from several generations of wolfdogs at minimum. While Sandlofer offers lengthy histories for the other animals, she states that she “doesn’t really know the story” of these animals (there are about five) but that they “came from West Virginia” and that they “desperately needed help and we were there to give it.”

The owner of the show doesn’t know how she ended up with a batch of wolfdog puppies–which she’s introduced to her audience as full-blooded Eastern Timber wolves? How is that even possible? She goes on to say that they’ve had “the boys” since they were babies, and that she raised them herself, which makes them easier to handle and work with.

Fast forward to this video  of the 2016 show, and Sandlofer is now telling the audience that “the boys” are all brothers, about five years old, and all came from the same (undisclosed) place in West Virginia, and she points out that they “look different” because “they’re wolf-hybrids”. Confusingly, however, some articles from around the same still have the Sandlofers stating that “the animals in their show all are eastern timber wolves.”  While other articles quote the Sandlofers as stating that they are wolf-hybrids.

After showing off “the boys” Sharon then introduces three young pups, two boys and one girl, whom she states “have been really interesting” because they’re only a year old, and they’re the first young animals she’s gotten to work with because normally they only get older rescues. So now we have two separate shows performed four years apart both containing young animals that Sandlofer states are the “first” young wolves or wolf-hybrids she’s ever worked with. 

On top of that, Wolves of the World seems to have offered photo opportunities throughout the years, each with a puppy or set of puppies, which, of course provokes the questions where are the puppies coming from? What sort of pups are they? (the Sandlofers refer to a pup named Lobo as half Arctic wolf and half Timber wolf, at one point, then call him a full Arctic wolf in a different instance) And where are they going?

As far as the scientific information that Sandlofer recites for her audience, much of it is misinformation, or fragmented facts.

According to Sandlofer a wolf’s “golden yellow eyes see extremely well”. But the reality is that wolves see, on average, as well as a human during the day (they see more tones of gray, and can detect motion faster than we can, but don’t actually see “better”) and some researchers actually believe that wolves might be nearsighted due to the fact that there eyes do not possess a foveal pit. They have more rods than we do, though, and thus see much better than humans in the dark. In addition, the color of a wolf’s eyes range from gold to amber, brown, gray, yellow and even green. Only blue is explicitly excluded from a true wolf’s eye color range, yet Sandlofer repeatedly describes all wolves as having “golden” eyes, citing it as one of their defining features.

Similarly, Sandlofer describes a wolf pack as being “five to as many as twenty wolves” when in reality, a pack can consist of as few as two wolves, and in some cases, under certain circumstances, as many as 40. In fact, at one point, the Druid pack of Yellowstone (and Sandlofer is quick to liken her own wolves to those of Yellowstone) swelled to 37 animals. During the winter of 2010-2011 there was even an unprecedented occurrence in the small town of Verkhoyansk, Russia wherein an exceedingly hard winter forced multiple wolf packs to merge, resulting in an amalgamation of hundreds of animals working together. Even conservative estimates put the number of wolves at over 200 animals, and in their bid to survive the winter, they wreaked havoc on the agriculture of the small town. A far cry from Sandlofer’s 5-20 animal wolf packs.

Sandlofer states that wolves are unique in the formation of their foot, wherein the two center toes are slightly longer, which “gives them superior traction while on the hunt”. In reality, this type of foot conformation is known as being “hare-footed” and all domestic sighthounds, as well as many other domestic breeds possess the feature. It provides more speed to the animal, but also take more energy within the execution of their gait. Domestic dogs with evenly rounded feet (the result of short third digital bones) are described as being “cat footed”.

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When Sandlofer discusses her wolves which were “rescued” from a Minnesota fur farm, she states that “fur farms are illegal”. Fur farms are not, in fact, illegal. They should be, but that’s another topic for another article. Fur farms in the US are not only legal, but they’re not even regulated at the federal level. Some states may, or may not have specific protections, but that’s no guarantee. The only possible protection for wolves would be the Endangered Species Act, but wolves do not currently have full protection under the ESA, and the ESA does not protect hybridized animals at all. So just as the Sandlofers are presenting their wolfdogs as full wolves, anyone owning full wolves could simply crossbreed their animals, and thus avoid the issue while still harvesting pelts. And since the Sandlofer’s other animals actually are wolfdogs, it seems plausible that the “wolves” they “rescued” from the supposed fur farm are also wolfdogs. Even if someone is accused of breaching the ESA, prosecuting them is an arduous and slow process, which multiple steps. And it’s not always completely successful.

The Wolves of the World show has, according to articles, and reviews, long been seen as an exciting and educational experience designed for family fun, despite that the “education” they offer is comprised of falsehoods, exaggerations, and outright bullshit. With the increasing popularity of “education through interaction” programs and facilities, it’s likely the Sandlofers will only continue to expand their show, misrepresenting wolves in the process. By foregoing honest facts in favor of showy–and untrue–stories and histories the Sandlofers do no service to current wild wolf populations, nor to conservation itself. In truth, the only suggestions for “aiding wolf conservation” that I ever heard the Sandlofers mention was that audience members should “contact their congressman” and either demand an end to wolf culling, or ask that they not be removed from the endangered species list. Genuine issues and information regarding sustainable wolf conservation within wild populations were never mentioned.

The history of wolves in America is a complicated, often sordid affair that swings from utter vilification and near complete eradication, to glorification, and contrived reverence to the point of absurdity. It’s a subject that far outstrips the inane adjectives of “misunderstood” and “competition” used by the Sandlofers to describe the American conflict between wolves and humans. Likewise, the ongoing biology, and science of wolves, and wolf conservation is an ever-expanding realm of study. And it’s one that faces a constant and ongoing war against the misinformation, lies, and exploitation of groups like the Sandlofers. Those of us fighting to reach the public without the aid of flashy shows and routines will readily meet the challenge, each and every time we face it.

If you would like to know more about the true history of wolves in America, the three books listed below are a great place to start.

War Against The Wolf, America’s Campaign to Exterminate the Wolf, Rick McIntyre, Editor

Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez

Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, Pro. Jon T. Coleman

For a plethora of scientific articles about wolves, and their conservation spanning decades check out this link.
* The Sandlofers did not respond to my attempts to contact them.

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Momentary Victory In An Ongoing War

At the beginning of 2017, Ringling Bros. Barnum Bailey Circus announced that after 146 years of entertainment with animals, it was closing its doors for good. “Big picture” animal rights groups, who remained fixated on “sticking it to the man on behalf of animals everywhere” instantly declared victory, announcing the vanquishment of the #1 animal exploiter in the United States. Much of the public, and those more capitalistically minded expressed confusion or horror, that there was something wrong with the iconic establishment, or that “animal rights” should be put above the needs and wants of human businessmen.

The remainder of us within the conservation community, those who understood the depths of such an announcement, began poring over press releases and articles, attempting to suss out the long-term plans for the captive wild animals which have long been a staple for Ringling Bros.. We knew, unlike the public–who widely and ignorantly cheered for the “retirement” of elephants from Ringling Bros. Barnum Bailey Circus–that a circus who ceases to use animals in their show, or who otherwise closes its doors, is not going to simply empty the last of its coffers to provide genuine retirement for those animals. Nor is it going to lose money by giving them away to established and capable sanctuaries where they might live out their days. No, the circus is a business, and lack of profit, not protests, is what brought about Ringling Bros. decision to close. Likewise, promise of profit is what will decide where their animals will finally go.

Already the breeding facility owned by Ringling’s parent company, (which is, in turn, owned by Kenneth Feld) has put the “retired” elephants from their circus to work pumping out offspring, supposedly to repopulate the planet. Since bull elephants become virtually unmanageable once they reach sexual maturity, and enter musk, their sole purpose at the Center for Elephant Conservation (Ringling’s breeding facility) is to sire more offspring. None of the articles I found, either those who tout how glamorous a “retirement” the elephants have at CEC, or those who point out the documented issues of CEC  (rampant cases of resistant tuberculosis, calves removed from their mothers by force at birth, etc.) mention the fact that not unlike the milk industry, bull calfs are somewhat of a millstone to be dealt with, and live in complete isolation in individual pens.

What is clear, even this early in the situation, is that Feld–who openly scorns genuine animal sanctuaries–will not simply retire the animals from Ringling Bros. Nor will the closure of the iconic Ringling Bros. have any impact at all on smaller, less well known circuses, who still use animals in their acts. Even if none of the Ringling animals end up sold to other circuses (never mind that their elephant breeding will provide for sales to other circuses) it’s clear that with void left by Ringling has already become a target for every smaller circus to fill. The Melha Shrine circus, for example, did away with its animal acts last year. But ticket sales fell, and customers began demanding refunds once they arrived and realized that there would be no animal performers. So this year, as “big picture” animal rights groups cheered and declared victory over Ringling, Melha quietly contracted with other entities to provide them with a fresh stable of exotic animals, and reintroduced them to the show.

They aren’t the only smaller circuses who are refurbishing and updating their shows, including, animal acts. Not everyone was pleased to hear that Ringling Bros. was closing. Sales for both Ringling Bros. and other circuses have rallied, and even if the influx turns out to be temporary, if nothing else, it is evidence that the public at large is not necessarily in agreement with the idea that animals do not belong in shows. In recent years, there’s been an immense growth in captive wild animal shows and foundations which focus on “education through interaction” which is basically a derivative of “Experiential Education”. The problem is that the latter is a way of teaching people to physically do something by allowing them to do it, while the former (according to its proponents) teaches people not to do something by allowing them to do it. The problem, for anyone not attempting to profit off of animal and human interaction, is obvious.

But for the public, “education through interaction” is a trend that has positively exploded.

The Arctic Fox Centre in Iceland provides the opportunity for legitimate research, but it’s also home to what the founders describe as “sustainable wildlife tourism” wherein it states that it teaches tourists about the arctic fox. This education includes venturing into the field, where tourists can feed foxes who have been habituated to human presence, and are accustomed to being fed by humans.

The Orphaned Wildlife Center, in New York, has gained a considerable following, and news highlights after videos they released of their founder, Jim Kowalczik, went viral.

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Casey Anderson has made a success of his Montana Grizzly Encounter through the popularity of his own interactions with the bears.

 

Wolf Creek Habitat & Rescue allows guests to go into the enclosure with their wolves, for a “minimum donation” of $50.00 or more and has babies on hand as well.

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Wolf Park also offers guests an opportunity to directly interact with their animals. They also offer photography for $200-$300

The Endangered Wolf Center offers behind the scenes tours where for a higher price, guests can have hands-on experiences with the animals.

The Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center allows direct interaction with wolves and other animals. For $200+ you can have their “Interactive Alpha” tour.

The Zoological Wildlife Conservation Center/Sloth Center (they utilize two names in a direct effort to mislead the public about what goes on there) allows touching of their sloths, and even “sloth sleepovers”. They also offer a variety of other animals for handling, and often sell them under the table to private owners.

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Even SA is now debating the matter of cub-petting, with an ever-growing division among conservation groups as to how handling lion cubs under regulation could be educational, and might be a “first step” in stopping the practice of breeding through exploitation. It remains unclear,  however, just how breeding lions in captivity to be handled by tourists will eventually stop the practice of breeding lions in captivity to be handled by tourists. (if you’d like an amusingly egotistical and out of touch version of why people simply “don’t understand why cub-petting works for SA”, check here, and if you want to read the sharply witty and insightful article written in rebuttal to that “mansplaining” tangent, check here).

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The point is, handling captive wild animals a phenomenon that is actually accelerating exponentially, and the driving force behind it is the idea that humans can be taught not to handle captive wild animals by allowing them to handle captive wild animals. Every single foundation or group listed above is advertised as “educational” even though the majority of them breed exotic animals solely to sell and/or allow the public to play with the young. Many also use the tired explanation that they are preserving bloodlines to repopulate the species. Which is also the reason Feld gives for the continued breeding of elephants at his own facility.

Terrifyingly enough the public at large buys into this idea. With the close of Ringling Bros. animal rights groups declared victory. But behind their backs, an ocean of “education through interaction” centers, shows, and entertainment options are increasing in popularity. Smaller, less metropolitan areas, whose populations are not savvy in regard to “conservation vs exploitation” simply don’t realize that the petting zoo where their kids get the chance to pet wolf cubs while hearing someone recite biology facts about wolves is actually part of the problem. If circuses like Ringling Bros. had simply altered their performances to focus on “education” rather than entertainment they might well have never been pressured as they were to eliminate the use of animals in their acts.

The hard reality, however, is that shows like Cirque du soleil is one of the most profitable entertainment companies ever founded. They brought in over $850,000,000.00 in global revenue in 2010 alone, long before Ringling Bros. even entertained the idea of retiring their elephants, much less closing their doors. Cirque has never used animals in its performances, and yet has remained strong, and is steadily expanding its ventures, even now. This is even more evidence to the fact that the closure of Ringling Bros had less to do with the animals, and more to do with the business of making money. It also proves that you do not, in fact, need animals to make your entertainment productions publicly successful.

It is vital, I cannot stress just how vital, for the conservation community to consider the closure of Ringling Bros. Barnum Bailey as only a momentary victory, not a genuine, or permanent one.

We must pay attention not just to who is exploiting animals, but how the public at large is perceiving them. With his foul mouth, and caustic nature, Eduard Serio did not gain 6 million followers on Instagram through his dull wit, or rambling and disarticulated spiels about meditation and “higher existence”. He got that many followers by putting out cutesy videos that make people “feel good” and feel smarter. He got that many followers by carefully marketing the animals he’s purchased as pets, as animals that were “rescued” from various situations. The public’s perception is what has given BJWT the power it has now, not facts, not genuine conservation, but merely the illusion of “making the world a better place”.

These photos depict situations which are easily distinguished by the civilian public as animal abuse.

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CORRECTION Indonesia Sumatran Tiger

But other situations of exploitation are not as readily apparent to civilians. In the wake of Ringling Bros. closure, we must be vigilant in regard to how the public responds. Just as we know the circus is not going to lose money on its animals, we know that at least a large portion of the public equates forcing animals to perform as exploitation, but does not include people who interact with their captive wild animals into the same category. They are easily confused by what is, and what is not, animal exploitation, and we often fail to realize that their ignorance is our enemy. Those of us who deal with conservation in a gritty, boots on the ground, way easily discern between true, ethical conservation groups, but the public–who does not see the inner workings of faux-conservationists like we do–are easily dazzled by basic, even inane or incorrect information, if it’s wrapped up in an attractive and exciting package. The subject is even more muddled when some conservation groups say that handling animals is acceptable sometimes, while others state that it’s never okay to handle captive wild animals.

The public is not stupid, but many of them are very ignorant. The public does not want to see captive animals beaten into submission and trained to perform for profit, but they do want to believe there’s magic in the world, and that such magic is evidenced by “special bonds” between man and animal. The public isn’t opposed to learning about conservation, but they do want to feel good about it, rather than feeling depressed and overwhelmed by reality.

All of these factors coalesce into a perfect breeding ground for the rise of the “education through interaction” crowd. Thus it is imperative that we view the closure of Ringling Bros. as only a momentary victory, not a permanent one.

The end of the circus is only the beginning in our war to protect captive wild animals from exploitation.