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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.