The Greatest Show on Earth?

A Look Inside Animal Abuse Allegations in the Entertainment Industry

I remember sitting in the stiff-backed plastic seats of the Richmond Coliseum, my cousins and I watching as performers flooded the arena. Eyes wide in amazement, we marveled at the trapeze artists’ routines, motorcyclists’ stunts, and animal acts. Particularly fixated on our
favorite animals of the time, the elephants, we watched as the mighty beasts lumbered into the arena one by one. Each elephant moseyed across the coliseum floor, one giant foot followed by the next. Their trunks and backs beaded with various decorations, the elephants marched trunk-in-tail across the arena as they positioned themselves for showtime.

Most young kids look forward to their birthday, Christmas, or even the first day of school, but as a kid I eagerly anticipated the day the circus came to town. I loved all animals when I was younger, but there was something about the elephant acts in the circus that I loved more than anything in the world. Despite my fear of clowns, my cousins and I religiously attended the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus each spring when it came to Richmond. Starting at age four, I attended my first circus, and from then on it became a tradition.

My mom, Mary Beth Baber, loved taking us to the circus because she used to go when she was a kid. She disliked the $15 buckets of popcorn and $35 tickets, although she made an exception because “it’s the circus, for crying out loud.” With four kids strapped in the back of the black Suburban, each year we headed to the Richmond Coliseum, all excited for what was to come.

Being so young, I never really had any complaints about the circus other than my growing fear of clowns. My mom told me that I sometimes “cried when the trainers whipped the animals,” but other than that I “loved the elephants and dogs the most.” Rebecca Rogers (Godwin High School ‘18) also loved the elephants and tigers, but she “remembers crying at her first circus because she was six years old and had just watched Dumbo. Laney Reed (‘18) only remembers “crying because she was scared of the clown they shot out of the cannon.” However, her parents got her “this super-cool clown cup with a snow cone in it, so that made up for it.” Like Reed, I remember my mom allowing us to pick out one toy before the show. In our shared playroom, my brother and I, over the years, had stashed clown cups, elephant snow globes, and various circus stuffed animals.

I had never given much thought to the way the animals were treated, trained, and cared for at the circus. As a kid, I don’t really remember thinking of the trainers and elephant shows as abusive; my mom told me I always thought the “elephants and dogs were really cute.” My mom didn’t really consider animal abuse either, although she was “a little disturbed by the whips.” She states that “her generation grew up, and nobody was really complaining about the mistreatment of the animals, we just went [to the circus] for fun.” However, looking back, I now recognize the sensitivity of the subject of animal cruelty and how it contributed to the the closing of the circus.

Beginning in 1871, with P.T Barnum’s first show, the circus has always used various animals in their acts. Horses were the first animal, then later in 1884 they began using tigers, lions, chimpanzees, monkeys, and dogs. Elephants were not incorporated into the show until 1922. In the past few decades, animal rights activists have petitioned to end the use of animals in circuses, and animal abuse allegations are believed to be part of the reason the Ringling Bros. show has shut down. Activists state that the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus has not followed the Animal Welfare Act; specifically, trainers have reportedly brutally beaten many of the tigers, elephants, and other animals. The Animal Welfare Act is required to be followed by all organizations participating in the research or exhibition of animals. It states:

“Each research facility shall provide for the training of scientists, animal technicians, and other personnel involved with animal care and treatment in such facility as required by the Secretary. Such training shall include instruction on—

(1) the humane practice of animal maintenance and experimentation;

(2) research or testing methods that minimize or eliminate the use of animals or limit animal pain or distress.”

Among the fourteen most popular circus shows in the world, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus is definitely the most famous. So, when the circus announced their shutdown, it came as a shock to many. Immediately, animal rights activists celebrated their victory, but others wondered about the sudden closing.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has suffered from many animal abuse allegations over the past 146 years. The numerous accusations, combined with a decline in ticket sales, resulted in an announcement of the closing of the circus. Their last show is set to debut on May 7th, 2017.

Animal abuse accusations began in 1916, with the execution of an elephant named Mary; the town (Kingsport, Tennessee) deciding to hang her after she trampled her trainer, Red Eldridge, to death. In addition, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatments of Animals) has spent years petitioning against the poor treatment of circus animals. Exposing videos of “out of show” training sessions with the animals, PETA has dedicated multiple pages on their website to the mistreatment of tigers, elephants, and other animals. They claim that circuses are not only harmful to the animals, but are a danger to the public. PETA states that circus animals are forced to do tricks for the audience because “they’re (the animals) afraid of what will happen if they don’t.” According to PETA, circus trainers abuse animals with “whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks, and other painful tools of the circus trade.” Animals are kept in constant confinement, chained and imprisoned, and for this reason PETA has petitioned for all circuses to switch to being animal-free . Along with PETA, The Humane Society of the United States is also opposed to circuses. President and CEO Wayne Pacelle claims that “It’s just not acceptable any longer to cart wild animals from city to city and have them perform silly yet coercive stunts.”  

Ringling Bros. has been charged with many fines over the years, including in 2009 when they were charged $270,000 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. A video was released of circus trainer Tim Frisco viciously beating and cursing at a group of Asian elephants. In the tape, Frisco is shown telling other elephant trainers to “beat the elephants with a bullhook as hard as they could.” The clip also showed a handler who used a blowtorch to remove elephants’ hair, as well as chained elephants and bears who “exhibited stereotypic behaviors caused by mental distress.” The circus claims that the video released was “deceptively edited” by PETA.

Ringling Bros. did not admit to any violation, but they did say they would introduce new training methods for those handling the animals. The company initiated a new review of the treatment of elephants, as well as “veterinary examinations of all elephants on the Ringling Bros Red Unit.” “This and the 60 other veterinary examinations over the past six months found that the elephants are all in good health,” stated Janice Aria, Director of Animal Stewardship and Training at Ringling Bros. She also said that “by addressing this issue, we trust that our customers, our employees and our industry colleagues will continue to see Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as a responsible animal steward and that we are committed to providing the very best of care for all our animals.” The show finally abandoned the elephant acts altogether in 2016, causing “an even more dramatic drop in sales,” states Kenneth Feld (CEO).

Animal abuse allegations are not the only reason the circus is closing. According to CEO Kenneth Feld, due to the decline of ticket sales and high operating costs the circus is now an “unsustainable business for the company.The closing of the Ringling Bros. circus is just another example of the violence that often is associated with our desire as a society for animals to be used as entertainment.

Tilikum at SeaWorld, Orlando, Florida.

Released in 2013, Blackfish is a documentary that exposes SeaWorld and its poor treatment of orcas and other sea animals. Centered around a killer whale named Tilikum, Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum’s separation from his family and his Icelandic home when he was just two years old. Confined in a Miami Seaquarium for over thirty years, Tilikum was been denied the natural freedoms given to other whales living in their ocean homes. Tilikum, like other whales in captivity, could only swim in endless circles, as opposed to swimming freely in the ocean. Echolocation is a tactic used by whales living in the ocean to navigate, but whales like Tilikum couldn’t use this in pools. Oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau compared the keeping of orcas in tanks to “a person being blindfolded in a jail cell.Due to intense confinement and emotional instability, Tilikum killed three humans (two of which were his trainers) and eventually died in captivity on January 6th, 2017. His violence towards humans has been attributed to his extreme isolation and emotional instability. The movie is described on its website as an “emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story that reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals.”  

SeaWorld has responded to Blackfish’s false allegations, stating that the film received all its information from former SeaWorld employees who “have little experience with killer whales” or haven’t worked with them in “over twenty years.” Featuring a video of former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg, the film falsely implies that Berg has had relevant experiences with Tilikum. In reality, Blackfish was shot ten years after Berg had worked as a trainer at SeaWorld, and she had had little to no experience working with killer whales. SeaWorld also claims that the film leaves viewers with the impression that SeaWorld “collects and separates killer whales from the wild.” Mother and calf whales are never separated at SeaWorld, and “in the rare occurrences that they do move whales among the parks, they do so only in order to maintain a healthy social structure.” SeaWorld also claims that Blackfish generalizes the role of animal rights activists as scientists who have “aggressively campaigned against marine mammal display for decades,” leaving a negative connotation. Due to negative media attention from the film, SeaWorld decided to phase out their orca program after the death of Tilikum in January.

Another story of animal abuse that derives from our desire for animal entertainment lies closer to home at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Natural Bridge, Virginia. The owners were charged with inadequate veterinary care for some of the zoo’s animals, dirty conditions, and a failure to maintain fences and enclosures in January of 2015. Due to this, the Natural Bridge Zoo will remain closed for the foreseeable future (however, judge Michael Irvine stated options for reopening if conditions improve). In a private lawsuit, officials with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries suspended the zoo’s state permit to exhibit wild animals in March of 2015; however they gave the owners options to correct poor conditions. Owner Karl Mogensen has made some improvements to his zoo, including a new veterinary care program and the removal of guinea pigs from the exhibits. Despite the improvements, the USDA states that the conditions of the zoo “could potentially lead to the license being suspended or revoked.”

Many are upset that the Natural Bridge Zoo’s license hasn’t already been removed; the Humane Society of the United States stated that “It’s time for the USDA to revoke this facility’s license and for state legislators to pass a meaningful law to prohibit similar inhumane attractions.” In 2015, zoo inspectors found a total of 56 violations of the Animal Welfare Act at Natural Bridge. Their findings included more than 40 animals in need of veterinary care, including a caged monkey “tormented by zoo workers,” who poked it with sticks, and sick guinea pigs being euthanized by “slamming them to a concrete floor before their carcasses were fed to the zoo’s tigers.” Federal regulators say that this investigation is ongoing and could result in the total shutdown of the zoo in the near future.

Another possible animal abuse case happened in January of this year, forcing the film A Dog’s Purpose to cancel its red-carpet premiere. The film tells the story of a dog’s multiple lives and the effect he has on his various owners.

Actor Dennis Quaid and dog Bailey.

Three weeks before the film hit theaters, TMZ released footage that “depicted a dog appearing to nearly drown during an on-set stunt” titled “TERRIFIED GERMAN SHEPHERD FORCED INTO TURBULENT WATER.” Following the release of the clip, filmmakers claimed it had been edited to “look like the dog was in more danger than in reality.” However, the damage had already been done. That same day, PETA sent out a news release urging protesters to boycott the film and sign petitions for live animals to never be used on screen again. While the movie still was shown in some theaters, the ticket sales were dramatically lower than predicted. Similar backlash occurred with the films Flicka in 2006 and Life of Pi in 2012 . During the filming of Flicka, two horses were killed due to “unpreventable accidents.” The Bengal tiger used in Life of Pi was reportedly treated poorly on set (once almost drowning), his mistreatment reportedly covered up by the American Humane Association. Animal abuse behind the scenes in movies is more common than the general public may realize, in that production companies are often able to cover up what is really happening. “No animals were harmed in the production of this film” is often not the case.

Due to the recent end of Ringling Bros. and allegations surrounding A Dog’s Purpose, animal abuse has been an overwhelming part of the media recently. Things go on behind the scenes of movies and television shows that we aren’t aware of and may never find out about. Rules and regulations surrounding the treatment of animals are ever-evolving with each new accusation. As our relationship with animals is changing, this may indicate that perhaps we are willing to give up the entertainment factor as we consider the moral implications of our decisions. 5% of people in the United States are either vegan or vegetarian, compared to 3.3% a year ago. Maybe we are on the verge of a cultural shift? As we redefine our relationship with animals, we (as a society) are beginning to become more aware of the moral consequences of our actions, and in the entertainment industry specifically.    

RELATED: Read Libbie Alexander’s Honors feature article about poaching and endangered species in South Africa. 

All photos courtesy of The Washington Post.

About the author

Caroline is a Junior at Collegiate School.