The news hit me like a bombshell last night. After 146 years of being the iconic circus of the world, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey will be closing this spring. Permanently. The cause was simple - the business was no longer profitable. A major contributing factor that was mentioned, however, was the company's ongoing feud with PETA, HSUS, and other organizations over its use of performing animals. It was this decision which led Ringling to retire its traveling elephants last year.
Like many zookeepers, I've always been conflicted about circuses. I have no doubt that Ringling's staff cares for their animals, and that the training methods of today aren't those of the past. I also know that Ringling is a major contributor to elephant conservation, to say nothing of the most successful breeder of Asian elephants in North America. Still, I've always had a hard time thinking of a life on the road as the best option for large animals.
The question that many zookeepers ask now is - after Ringling and SeaWorld, what's next? Is it our turn?
Zoos and aquariums, it must be said, do have some advantages in the upcoming struggle. For one, most are non-profits, which lets us contradict the "exploiting animals for money" claim. Second, our facilities - including the enclosures, where the animals spend their days - are open to the public, providing visitors with a better understanding of how our animals live. Third, the conservation and education message are out front and center, with much less of a blatant entertainment appeal. It is hard to get visitors to take you too seriously if you have elephants in tutus and bears on bicycles.
Our biggest asset, however, is our audience. Ringling wasn't shut down through government legislation. It was worn down by attendance. And forget the animal side of things for a second, because that does make sense. A century ago, the traveling circus was the only entertainment available to small towns. Now there are movies and video games and concerts, to say nothing of professional sports; haunted houses and farms appear in droves every autumn, and every empty storefront seems to have been converted into an escape room. There are also zoos and aquariums - providing another outlet for viewing animals that once would have been seen only in circuses.
Oh, and let's not forget the one thing circuses are synonymous with - clowns. Does anyone still like clowns? Because when I hear the "c" word, I don't think Bonzo and Ronald McDonald. I think of Pennywise from It and Twisty from American Horror Story. That couldn't have helped.
Anyway, my point is, unlike circuses, zoos and aquariums are seeing increasing rates of visitors. The public, for now, is still on our side. And we need to keep them there.
How do we do it?
Be bold and be vocal. Share our success stories - loudly. Celebrate births. Unveil new and improved habitats. Tout our commitment to conservation programs. And tell the story of what's happening in the wild. Remind the public that endangered species are in a lot of trouble, and they need all the help they can get.
We also need to be as open as possible about our animal care. To the end, Ringling has been plagued with accusations about how they beat or otherwise mistreated their animals. All the keepers I know who went behind-the-scenes, however, said that they were impressed by the commitment and care shown to the animals. It's just that the majority of people never saw that, never understood that. We have to help them see and understand. Do keeper talks. Give behind-the-scenes tours. Reply to comments on social media.
Above all, we return to my professional mantra, one which I developed in the wake of the Toronto elephant saga. Beyond Reproach. Do your job like the eyes of the world are on you. Because on day, they might be.