My family and I recently attended one of the final performances of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and to say it was more thought-provoking than a typical circus experience would be an understatement.
When Feld Entertainment, the company that owns and runs Ringling Bros., made the announcement that the famous circus was closing for good, my first reaction was disappointment—magnified when I saw that for this farewell tour, they had nearly doubled their prices. We’ve gone to the circus nearly every time they’ve been in town, dating back to before we had the excuse of children.
Yet, all the stars seemed to be aligning to say that it was time to call it quits. A 60 Minutes episode that aired the week before our circus date profiled an organization called Animal Defenders International, which rescues animals from circuses. By secretly recording beatings and other cruel treatment of animals, they’ve helped to pass laws in 15 U.S. states and many other countries, prohibiting the use of wild animals in circuses.
Coinciding with this was my birthday, which my daughter celebrated the way only young children can—by scanning her room and collecting a few random “treasures” to give to me as gifts. Along with a clothespin decorated as a superhero and a squeezable stress ball, this included a children’s book called The One and Only Ivan. Inspired by a true story, the book is about a silverback gorilla who lives for 27 years in captivity (along with a couple of elephants). It’s an excellent book, and after reading it, I was more attuned to the treatment of wild animals in captitvity—just in time for the circus.
Till then, my own feelings had been somewhat skewed, because of the well-intentioned but overaggressive past efforts of protesters outside the circus. While approaching the venue with our kids, pamphlets would be thrust into our faces, along with unsolicited verbal descriptions detailing the terrible things being done to these animals. Partly as a reaction to what I considered an obnoxious way to get their message across (protesters of all sorts take note), and in the interest of preserving what should have been, to my mind, an innocent and formative childhood experience, I waved them away—out of sight, out of mind. I figured the pressure from these activists would force Ringling Bros. to modify whatever harmful training methods they were using, and I wanted the circus to continue, so I felt no guilt about my patronage.
Though Ringling Bros. won lawsuits filed against them by the Humane Society and ASPCA, they decided to drop the elephants from the circus last year.
The animal rights issue is a tricky one—the elephants were gone, but other animals, notably lions and tigers, remained, despite similar accusations of cruelty and inhumane living conditions. The 2017 show includes goats, pigs, dogs, horses, llamas and a kangaroo. Where is the line? Some animals, like dogs, can be trained with rewards, rather than punishments, but when animal rights advocates describe “tearing tiger cubs from their mothers,” I can’t help but wonder—isn’t that what we do with almost every domesticated animal, dogs and cats included? And incidentally, if you want to stage an animal act, I for one would be pretty impressed to see a housecat tamer line up a dozen cats and get them all to lay down together.
Without the elephants, ticket sales fell dramatically—the half-empty arena at the performance we attended confirmed that. So it was one last time through the overpriced plastic swords, colored lights, and noisemakers that may have sent more than one child into seizure over the years. The circus is loud and bombastic, gaudy and full of bluster, ridiculous and sublime at once; it has no reservations about calling itself “The Greatest Show on Earth.” (One suspects that our current president, who has more than a little P.T. Barnum in him, is waiting in the wings to claim that title.)
Cirque Du Soleil has built a successful business without animals, but the Canadian company’s productions veer slightly too much toward the pretentious for my taste. The thought has crossed my mind, more than once, that it would be very entertaining to see an elephant burst onstage at a Cirque performance, ruining the tastefully designed sets and scattering the performers. But I really didn’t mind the elephants’ absence at the Ringling Bros. show; for me, the circus has always been more about humans pushing their own limits, whether it’s performing a quadruple somersault or getting shot out of a cannon.
In addition to the loss of their signature elephants, Feld Entertainment pointed to shorter attention spans as an explanation for lower circus attendance. I don’t know if I accept that—there’s so much going on at a circus, often at the same time, that it’s hard to keep track of it all. But I do suspect that something has fundamentally shifted, generationally.
In video games and movies, people performing impossible acrobatics is common; in real life and at a distance, even dangerous stunts can pale in comparison. It’s difficult for most kids, and many adults, to appreciate the dedication and effort it takes to fly on the trapeze, walk a tightrope, or even work a good clown routine.
We watched a woman dismount, pass under her horse, and remount from the other side, all while the horse was loping around the ring. If your only frame of reference is what you see in movies, it might not seem that impressive; I’m reminded of a CGI moment from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers involving a similar maneuver, which seemed to violate the laws of physics and looked entirely fake to my eyes; but maybe for some kids, that’s more real than reality. The fact that Feld is continuing its shows with licensed characters, like Marvel Universe LIVE!, Disney On Ice and Disney Live!, might support that theory.
I’m hopeful that at some point, we’ll see a “next-generation” circus tour the area. In the meantime, my family and I soaked up as much of the spectacle as we could—unicyclists, motorcyclists, tightrope walkers, aerialists, ice skaters, acrobats, acrobats who are also ice skaters, and clowns.
Goodbye, Greatest Show on Earth. You will be missed.