All Hail the Globe of Death
Confession: The circus has always occupied a special place in my creepy little heart, for no really good reason. In fact, if I hadn’t gone on to college after high school, my backup plan was to join the circus. This is true, but it’s actually a long, uninteresting story about something that never happened. Ask me about it when I’m drunk and I’ll be happy to bore you to death, free of charge. Anyway, before this year, the last circus I had seen was in 1989. I actually caught two circuses this year: Cirque de Soleil and Ringling Brothers. Acrobats and trapeze artists, contortionists and jugglers: I dig all that shit. But the two experiences could not have been more different.
I was not really expecting just how much more inspired and impressive the Cirque performances were (and they even had little people, too). Some aspects were kind of queer – I mean, no one really likes mimes, but on the whole, the show was an elegant representation of European style circusing (I know this isn’t a word – I’m trying to be succinct here). The acts were artful and unique, graceful and stylized. Seeing them made me wish I could go back to a time before I was afraid of things. Maybe today I’d be that girl twirling from the ceiling by her teeth. Overall, Cirque had a very charming and small feel, but they were notably missing two elements: animals and The Globe of Death.
By comparison, Ringling is a much bigger circus with pedestrian slapstick performances and high-wire acts that paled in comparison, in both cachet and style, to Cirque. The animals are especially showcased and my favorite part, The Globe of Death, is reserved for the finale. If you do not know what the Globe of Death is, you are seriously missing out. Picture a 20-foot spherical metal cage. Put eight motorcycles in it and watch them go round and round in intersecting but non-colliding paths. It’s a total trip and well worth bearing the distraction of the lame projector screen and running storyline that have replaced the traditional “Three Rings” – ugh. The wild animal acts are now limited to white tigers and elephants, and you still have your domestic horse, dog, cat, and bird acts. There was a lady who had Persian cats trained to walk tight ropes and carry birds on their backs and jump into poses on tiered rotating baskets — a sort of cat herding, if you will.
So what’s this got to do with Activism? At face value, they merely represent two totally separate markets of circus entertainment. But peel back the layers and you will find something far more sinister. And, by the way, I’m juxtaposing them because these were the only circuses I went to this year, after not having been to a single one in over 15 years. Here is my point: although entering the United Center for Cirque de Soleil was a carefree non-event, the same cannot be said for the Ringling Brothers show at the same location. For Ringling, a bunch of protesters greeted us from across the street.
Actually, the animal portion of the circus has always been my least favorite part. And I was forced to acknowledge this feeling as we walked toward the door past a few PETA protestors. I wouldn’t characterize myself as an animal lover; I have two cats I can’t stand (I don’t actually wish them ill will – we enjoy elements of a loving and frequently distant relationship). Neither am I a PETA lover, for that matter. When I saw the signs and such, I literally rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh great, PETA’s here to ruin it for everybody.” Regardless, I accepted a comic book offered to me by a protester – which I pocketed and promptly forgot about. But when I got home, I couldn’t escape the impression the animals had left on me.
I guess it would be one thing if it seemed like the animals were actually playing and enjoying themselves. But it really doesn’t seem that way. Even the domestic animals look kind of miserable and resentful. Ringling has a whole intermission screen show about how the animals (the elephants especially) are positively reinforced to perform tricks that they would normally do anyway. But throwing cream pies at clowns doesn’t actually seem like natural behavior to me.
Later on when I was emptying my coat pockets, I found that protester’s comic, entitled “An Elephant’s Life,” which turned out to be a schmaltzy, kid friendly communiqué containing information I already knew about elephants in the wild. It also included information on the tactics employed by circus trainers, among them the use of a weapon called a bullhook, which doesn’t exactly sound like positive reinforcement to me. It put my earlier feelings in the perspective of what circus life might be like for a wild animal.
All I did was Google “Ringling Brothers elephants” and I was provided with more hits about abuse than about anything else (to be fair, Ringling is not the only circus under fire for its use and treatment of performance animals). It was impossible to ignore the undercover video footage of trainers beating elephants, the numerous Animal Welfare Act violations recorded by the USDA, and the lawsuit against Ringling, which includes allegations of animal abuse made by former employees. Even if the animals are being treated humanely, and even with Ringling having its own Center for Elephant Conservation, just the amount of time a circus animal spends being caged, chained, transported, or otherwise ogled by slack-jawed gawkers is in stark contrast to the true way they would actually live, given the option. Any reasonable person could logically conclude that this is not the way these creatures were meant to exist.
Maybe I’m just the weak-minded victim of a meta-protest, but I don’t believe that animals exist for my amusement. I do, however, believe that people exist for my amusement. Am I weird to think that? I really get into ladies unicycling on tightropes, tiny folk twisting themselves into all manner of unnatural shapes, and astonishing feats of daredevil derring-do. Want to see wild animals? Go to the zoo – all they have to do is eat and occasionally screw. It’s not freedom, but it beats getting flogged by a bullhook any day. Anyway, I just think it’s a shame that with all the perils animals must face at the hands of humans (for whatever reason), they also have to be tortured into behaving in unnatural ways. It just felt degrading to watch them. And who wants to see cat herding anyway? It might be very difficult to convince cats to do these things, but it’s still fucking stupid.
So I guess the activism angle this issue is twofold: Either Ringling should get rid of their animal acts, or Cirque should add The Globe of Death. In fact, if Cirque had The Globe of Death, there would be absolutely no reason to go to Ringling at all. The only thing that will convince either of them to do the right thing is consumer response. As long as they are able to get asses in seats, circuses will continue to put bullhooks in elephants or not have The Globe of Death, as they see fit. Don’t support this kind of nonchalance with your money; you can even write to your local government and ask them to ban the type of circus you don’t like. If you don’t know what kind of circus you like, you can follow the links below to help you in your decision-making process. Just keep in mind: suffering is degrading to everyone, and nothing beats the combined spectacle of contortionists and The Globe of Death!
Check out the Humane Society’s list of animal-free circuses here.
Take a look at a fact sheet detailing numerous animal deaths and USDA violations at the hands of Ringling Bros. Circus alone here.
And finally, a really disturbing video I couldn't stand to watch in its entirety.
Copyright 2006, Heather Egland
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