The unexpected (to me, at least) news from Ringling Brothers the other day got me thinking about a topic which I had largely been silent on up until this point - circuses. As I mentioned when sharing the news, the decision to phase out elephant acts has led to a lot of discussion and debate among the zoo community. Zoo folks have widely divergent views on circuses. Some see them as colleagues, who we can learn a lot from. Others see them as animal abusers and exploiters.
A lot of people lump circuses and zoos together - both, after all, often feature exotic animals - and it is true that they have a long and interconnected past. The Jardin des Plantes, considered by many to be one of the world's first modern zoos, was partially founded with confiscated circus animals. Circuses and traveling menageries predated the American zoo by over a century. The Smithsonian National Zoo got many of its first animals - including its first elephants - from a circus. They also got their first head keeper - William Blackburne - from a circus. In its struggling early years, the zoo housed circus animals over the winter off-season in exchange for a share of the babies born. In this, National Zoo was fairly typical - there was a lot of movement of animals and personnel between the two. The German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck Jr. was famed in equal parts for his zoo - one of the first to display animals in natural, open enclosures - and for his circus - focusing on training methods and kindness rather than fear and punishment.
Over the past few decades, zoos have sought to reinvent themselves as conservation centers and educational facilities... and that's meant distancing themselves from their former bedfellows. So where do the differences lie?
Mission - Theoretically, zoos and aquariums are about conservation and education, circuses about entertainment. Granted, there is some blurring of lines. Zoos and aquariums started off with entertainment as a prominent goal, and even now they acknowledge that if visitors aren't enjoying themselves, they won't get the support they need to operate. Likewise, Ringling Brothers had begun to take a serious interest in Asian elephant conservation in recent years, both in terms of education and financial support for field conservation programs.
Performances - Zoos and aquariums do lots of training, some of it for the public. Most of that, however, is husbandry-based training, routines which are supposed to help keepers take better care of their charges. The days of dancing elephants wearing tutus and chimps having tea parties have largely passed... in zoos, anyway. Circuses are all about performances and training for those performances. Advocates say that it's far more stimulating for the animals to be engaged and challenged all the time than it is to sit in an enclosure. Critics say it's demeaning and that animals are forced, sometimes brutally (more on that, later).
Mobility - Zoos and aquariums are stationary. Circuses are on the move. I suppose you could think of SeaWorld as some sort of stationary-circus, but let's leave them out of this one. As with performances, advocates of circuses say that a life on a move is enriching for the animals. Critics say it is stressful, and that animals spend too much time cramped up during transport, be it a train boxcar of the back of a truck.
Where do I stand on circuses? Maddeningly in the middle, I suppose.
There are circuses which do care a lot for their animals and provide the best possible care. These I support. Then there are those that abuse and terrify and bully their animals into performing. These I completely condemn (a classic example is the former home of the Suarez Seven, polar bears rescued from a Mexican circus). The problem is, how do you tell the difference? I would suggest some ground rules...
1.) Frequent inspections of all circuses featuring animals, with a special focus on those featuring exotics. Inspections would encompass animal welfare and public health and safety concerns. These already exist, but could be more stringent. Evidence of abuse or neglect on any animal would be enough to have the circus suspended, pending a more thorough investigation.
2.) Banning of some species from circuses. Some animals are too high-strung, too easily stressed, or too delicate for life on the road. Others have husbandry needs which are too difficult to properly meet when the animal is being transported frequently. Leave these ones to zoos...
3.) Pay to Play. For every exotic species that a circus displays, require the circus to pay a sum towards an approved conservation program that supports the protection of those animals in the wild.
4.) Rotation - limits to how long an animal can be on tour (varying by species, perhaps even by individual temperment). Ringling has an excellent facility for their elephants when not in travel. Every circus should have zoo-quality off-show housing for animals not on the road. Animals should be given environmental enrichment and housed in appropriate social groups.
5.) De-Acquisition Plan - an ethical, welfare focused plan for what happens to each animal when it is no longer deemed suitable for performance, such as if it is injured or is too old and retires. Ideally, the circus would provide a forever-home in its off-show housing area, but it will acceptable if it can offer a plan for another approved home, such as at an accredited zoo or sanctuary.
These won't please everybody, I'm sure. Circuses will have their critics for as long as they have their animals. Hopefully, however, the implementation of some common-sense, animal-focused rules can help support and highlight those circuses that provide the best care for their animals while holding accountable those that do not.