Popular fiction suggests the arrival of a circus in town is cause for celebration, but I wonder if it is time to reconsider this view.
I have attended many circuses over the years. In the interest of full disclosure, I must point out I am not a big fan.
Clowns creep me out. They give me the willies, and they always have. If I never see another clown, that will be OK with me.
Another thing I don’t like about circuses is the animals.
I do like animals, but even when I was a kid, it seemed to me the animals in the circus weren’t having much fun.
Reversing the situation, I didn’t think I would have much fun if I was in their position, either.
Being forced to perform, under threats of physical violence, in front of hordes of screaming children, is a nightmare of epic proportions.
I sometimes secretly wished the animals could turn the tables and give their tormentors a taste of their own medicine.
Even when I was very young, I knew that could never happen. If a circus animal retaliates against the way he is treated, the animal is the one who gets killed. There are no happy endings in circus land.
For years there have been battles between circus groups who say they treat their animals humanely, and animal rights groups who say they don’t.
I try to look at the matter pragmatically.
Ideally, I would like to see animals in their natural habitat.
However, I am a realist, and I concede that there will always be situations in which wild animals are kept in captivity. In some of these cases, the confinement is in the animal’s best interest.
If we need to keep wild animals captive, it should be done in a way that resembles their natural environment as closely as possible.
Hauling elephants, lions, tigers, and other animals around the country in trucks, trailers, or boxcars 11 months out of the year does not meet that criteria.
Enclosures should not be too hot or too cold, and animals should have access to good food, clean water, and veterinary care.
I am looking at this purely from the perspective of how I would want to be treated if I were a captive bear.
Despite the assertions of some circus owners that their animals are well-treated, the record of many of these businesses shows a history of violations.
There have also been cases in which circus animals have tried to escape their captors, causing injury or death to the trainers, the public, and the animals themselves.
We have made much progress in the area of animal treatment over the years.
For example, when I was young, zoos often resembled prisons.
Even large animals such as lions and tigers were kept in tiny boring cages with concrete floors, brick walls, and nothing resembling their native habitat.
Today, many zoos have found ways to design enclosures that are much more natural and comfortable, both for the inmates and for observers.
In addition to providing decent living quarters and not forcing animals to perform under threat of violence, it seems to me we should also keep animals for the right reasons.
If animals are to be kept in captivity, it should be for educational or scientific purposes, not simply for human entertainment.
Allowing people, especially young people, to view animals in something resembling their natural habitat, can help to form bonds between animals and people. This may someday lead to finding better ways in which we can share this small planet.
Seeing healthy, content animals can teach people much more about these creatures than reading about them in books can.
Animals are not clowns or actors, and people should not be allowed to torture them into filling these roles.
If we need entertainment, there are plenty of forms of human entertainment in which the performers have a choice, and make the decision to perform.
There are even a number of animal-free circuses that provide exciting shows that dazzle audiences without any animals being mistreated.
These, I believe are the circuses of the future.
A lion should be seen as a symbol of the wild, open plains, not a moth-eaten clown forced to perform tricks while some jerk pokes a chair in his face and cracks a whip.
I won’t be holding up a protest sign when the circus comes to town this month, but I won’t be buying a ticket, either.