Editorial style illustration of a business man or politician taking an oath. This is a two part illustration.

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.

12524032_1670181923265095_6386118814676503600_n

 

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.

15267704_1629715510387411_3245324882861448223_n

 

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.

10897820_981064495247128_6296909500943637704_n

 

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).

img_4368

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.

tiger-attack

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.

FullSizeRender-6

“Not To Hurt Our Humble Brethren Is Our First Duty To Them;” Pope Francis Should Have Brushed Up On the Teachings of His Namesake

I was Christened Catholic. It doesn’t come up much, but I was. And I grew up around devout Catholics. Mass several times a week, Catholics. They were my Great Aunts. I still have crucifixes that belonged to them, and various icons. They instilled in me, a love for the Saints, if not for the Church. The Church can be twisted into all sorts of things, to suit the ideals of whomever is in charge. But the Saints? Well, they were just people who lived life as thoughtfully as they could, and became so renowned for their own lives that they were later canonized. Some of them might seem silly, but to my great aunts they were all important in their own ways.

St. Francis was always my saint. He was the one I’d mutter prayers to while trying to climb a tree and return a wayward baby bird to its nest. St. Francis was the one I invoked when I was silently begging for an opossum or turtle to make it across the road, back when I was too young to do anything else about it. St. Francis was my go-to guy whenever shit hit the fan and an animal was in danger, or when a lot of thankless work needed to be done for nothing in order for an animal to be properly taken care of. It was St. Francis I beseeched to look over animals that were beyond my aid, animals who were suffering and dying, or had already died. All too often because of human abuse, or ignorance. Suffice to say, I rely on St. Francis a lot. Daily, and sometimes, multiple times a day, if it’s a particularly shitty day for animals.

St. Francis saw animals as his brothers and sisters, he saw them as equals, and he believed it was our responsibility as humans to respect them and treat them as we would other humans.

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men.
All creatures have the same source as we have. Like us, they derive the life of thought, love, and will from the Creator. Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them; but to stop there is a complete misapprehension of the intentions of Providence. We have a higher mission. God wishes that we should succour them whenever they require it.”
–St Francis

Since I consider St. Francis to be my personal patron saint, I was keen, in an abstract and outsider sort of way, when the latest Pope chose his name after, and in honor of, St. Francis. And as far as leaders of the Church goes, the Pope has been a pretty open and understanding Pope, straddling that awkward and constantly wavering line between the Church and everything that doesn’t fall under the Church’s “acceptance” or “ideals”.

That all changed for me this afternoon when ICARUS founder, Jessica James left me a voicemail telling me to check out Youtube and what happened at the Vatican today. I dubiously did as suggested and I couldn’t have been more shocked and disappointed at what I found.

Pop Francis–who named himself in honor of St. Francis who saw himself as the caretaker of all God’s creations, no matter how lowly–was smiling and laughing as he watched a captive tiger paraded around on a chain choke collar and leash. He even engaged in petting the captive tiger, an action which leads to the suffering and death of thousands of captive big cats all over the world every year. There was photo of Pope Francis also petting a very small black jaguar cub. A cub that looked too young to have properly developed its immune system.

The visit, described as a “jubilee for traveling circuses” was intended to celebrate the treatment of “the most needy, the poor and the homeless, prisoners and disadvantaged kids.” to whom the traveling performers often open their shows. While the treatment of their fellow humans is commendable, the treatment of their animals is another matter.

Has the Pope read none of the teachings of his own namesake? That he seemingly condones the use of captive animals within circuses, the continued breeding of them for the sake of providing cubs to be constantly exploited, the violence used to force them to perform, is heart wrenching. That he would actually partake in glorifying such abuse and exploitation while bearing the name of a Saint who would have–and did, during his lifetime–condemn such transgressions, is utterly unconscionable.

“This too, is mercy–to sow beauty and joy in a world sometimes gloomy and sad.” The Pope was quoted as saying, in regard to the kindness of the circus performers.

But the circus is a world that is always gloomy and sad for the animals trapped and abused within it.

Contrastingly to the Pope’s happy embracement of animal exploitation, his namesake, St. Francis said,

“We are not God…. we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the heart justifies absolute domination of other creatures.”

And,

“Every act of cruelty towards any creature is contrary to human dignity.”

St. Francis went so far as to say, in the face of the Church, that,

“An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “domination” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.”

The word Stewardship is defined as: the responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving.

“Responsible overseeing and protection of” doesn’t quite jive with “beating into submission, forcing to perform, denying medical care, abusing, exploiting, and breeding for profit” yet that’s precisely what circuses do with their animals. It’s what’s been happening to animals since animals were first captured and used in the arenas of the Gladiators.

It’s what’s been happening to animals for thousands of years, and what’s still happening to animals today.

But it’s not how St. Francis believed animals should be treated, and it’s not what he taught, or how he lived. Pope Francis clearly needs to brush up on his studies of his own namesake, because I doubt that St. Francis would be honored by how the Pope has acted today.

The captive breeding and exploitation of big cats is a phenomenon that is actually increasing, despite the best efforts of groups like ICARUS. Despite that many circuses have announced that they will phase out elephants in the use of their shows, most still use big cats in their performances. Despite that questions are being raised about such pseudo-sanctuaries as Black Jaguar White Tiger, T.I.G.E.R.S., Dade City Wild Things, and others who promote pay to play cub-petting schemes, and who perpetually produce captive bred big cat cubs to be used in those schemes, the social media presence of these exploiters continue to grow in popularity.

In my last post, I covered the recent worldwide celebration of a staged video showing Eduardo Serio playing with one of his jaguars, pointing out that while he and his followers considered it a triumph for them, it really did nothing but peddle the idea that big cats make cute pets.

Now, the Pope, whom millions admire and look to for examples of how life should be lived, has, knowingly or not, publicly condoned the exploitation, abuse, and suffering of captive exotic animals everywhere.

Pope Francis has, by example, condoned the belief that animals exist solely to provide us with entertainment, something his namesake, St. Francis, spent a lifetime trying to counter. A lifetime that was so revered after the fact that he was canonized, his name forever linked to the ideals he worked to foster while alive.

I might not be a practicing Catholic, and I’m sure that Pope Francis could care less about my opinion of him, but St. Francis is my patron saint, and I’ve done everything I can to fashion my own life after his.

Today, Pope Francis disregarded the very deepest beliefs that his namesake, St. Francis held most dear, what he prayed to God daily for, that he would have the “grace to see all animals as gifts from You and to treat them with respect for they are Your creation.”

For shame, Pope Francis, how could you so willingly embrace and participate in the exploitation and abuse of God’s creatures for the profit and amusement of the human race?

“The Lord bless thee and keep thee. May he show his face to thee and have pity on thee. May he turn his countenance toward thee and give thee peace. The Lord bless thee.”

–Blessing of St. Francis

Artemis Grey