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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Movement to Ban Circus Animals

Air Date: Week of

In response to a growing movement criticizing performing animal acts, a number of cities in the U.S. and Canada have debated and even enacted bans on wild animal performances. Host Steve Curwood talks with Boston Globe reporter Vicki Croke (CROAK) about what this could mean for the circus industry.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Greatest Show on Earth will be welcome this year in Seattle, but it almost was shown the door. In February, an ordinance that would have banned exotic animal performances was defeated by the Seattle City Council by just one vote. If the law had passed, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus would have seen many of its acts prohibited. Seattle is the latest and biggest battleground in a movement that's seen a number of cities around the country ban animal performances. Rodeos are coming under attack as well. Vicki Croke writes the animal beat column for the Boston Globe. She says the growing criticism of circuses is part of the broader change in attitudes toward captive creatures.

CROKE: Currently, people are concerned about wild animals in very unnatural settings behaving in very unnatural ways, and certainly the people in the animal rights movement feel that it's not kind to animals, and that, in fact, it can be dangerous to people who attend.

CURWOOD: So it is fair to say that this concern about what animals do in circuses is part of a larger, really growing sentiment in the public.

CROKE: Absolutely. We are seeing a huge change in zoos today, to much more naturalistic enclosures, and in the circus community I think we've done away with the flaming hoops for the most part. You still see some of that. But their acts are changing, also.

CURWOOD: But the ban on performing animals didn't pass in Seattle. I'm wondering if the animal rights activists are reaching too far. Are they trying to do away with something that people -- well, you know, we all went to the circus when we were kids.

CROKE: That's right. The animal rights movement is the vanguard of a social movement. They're always ahead of the rest of us, though I think that the public's attitudes toward all of these issues are in fact changing. And some ordinances and laws have passed in various communities around the country, and I think that's a trend we're going to see continue, and it will continue to pass in certain places. I think that circuses need to address some very serious issues about moving animals around and the way they're treated.

CURWOOD: What are the specific problems with the circus acts and the way the animals are transported, briefly?

CROKE: The problem is that they're in very unnatural conditions. Now, people who support circuses make a legitimate claim that in the circus an animal is employed. It's active. It has things to do. It's not sitting around bored the way it would be in a very boring zoo exhibit. So they do have that going for them. The animals have something to do, and that's important for a wild animal. In the wild they're foraging for food, they're defending their territory, they're looking for mates. They're very active. However, one of the most important issues is, and I do think that elephants are a particular case with their own set of circumstances. They're very intelligent, obviously they're very powerful. In zoos, where you want to work with elephants in case a veterinarian has to check them out, but what zoos use is operant or classical conditioning, in which you get elephants to behave in a certain way and you reward them for that desired behavior. If an elephant chooses not to participate on a given day, it can ignore you and you can ignore the elephant. At the circus, the train leaves on time, and how do you get an elephant who decides it doesn't want to get on the train? And that happens from time to time on board. And I've talked to executives at Ringling about this, and in fact the vice president told me you have to spank a child sometimes.

CURWOOD: Vicki, what's the difference between an animal who performs in a circus and, say, one who performs at a zoo, or at a marine park?

CROKE: There isn't a whole lot of difference between the two. When I was doing the research for my book, The Modern Ark, I went to the Brookfield Zoo and saw a dolphin performance. And during that performance the dolphins were trained to shake their heads yes and no to answer questions. They wore costumes. And the crowd was really captivated by this performance. At the end of the show, as the kids came down the aisles, they dangled their fingers into the water, and the trainer got on the microphone, and was absolutely unhinged, yelling at them, "These are wild animals! They could bite you, get your fingers out of there!" And I thought: You just spent half an hour telling us that they're not wild animals, that they're just like humans in wetsuits, and they understand what we say and they're friendly. And I think that is a problem.

CURWOOD: Do you think that these questions about circuses will be extended to zoos and marine shows?

CROKE: The changes have already begun to occur. We are much more sensitive to the needs of the animals in all of those places, and I think that the public is becoming more and more sophisticated. And they want to see animals behaving like animals.

CURWOOD: Where is all of this leading? Do you think that the few bans or changes, do you think this is going to spread around the country? In another ten years will it be politically incorrect to have performing animals in your circus?

CROKE: Absolutely, I don't know what the time frame is, but I absolutely do think that that will change. You know, years ago we used to have exotic people in zoo exhibits and in circuses. We thought Laplanders were an interesting exhibit. And we certainly don't do that any more.

CURWOOD: So the tiger leaping through the flaming hoop is going the way of the strong man and the fat lady.

CROKE: I think so, Steve.

CURWOOD: Vicki Croke is a reporter with the Boston Globe. Vicki, thanks for taking the time with us today.

CROKE: Thank you, Steve.



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