(Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Presents Legends is currently playing the Baltimore-Washington, DC, area through April 19. Check dates and buy tickets here.)
Ah, the circus. Just the word conjures up so many different images, thoughts, and emotions. For some, going to the circus was an indelible part of childhood. For others, it’s been something to share with their own children.
For many, the circus–and particularly Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey–has become a lightning rod for controversy. Claims of animal neglect and abuse seem to dog the circus at every turn. Protesters are a common sight outside host arenas. And online activism is a more-or-less constant force against the circus.
And it’s taken a toll. Indeed, Feld Entertainment (the company that owns Ringling Bros) recently announced that it would eliminate elephants and elephant acts from all of its shows. After 145 years, they will be pulled from all Feld-owned circuses by 2018.
Some are declaring this a success, whereas others claim it’s merely a first step in the right direction.
On the flip side, there are those who side with Ringling and maintain that elephants are a defining characteristic of the traveling circus. The claim is that if you remove them, then there’s not much left.
It’s so easy to side with one of the extremes on this issue and add your voice to the chorus. Indeed, the voices at both extremes seem to be the loudest. However, I’m honestly somewhere in the middle.
My thoughts on animals in captivity, their role in places like the circus and SeaWorld, and how we present these issues to our kids are a matter for another post (one on which I’m currently working), but I did have the opportunity to attend a recent performance of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Presents Legends. And it was interesting for a few reasons.
Ringling Bros still bills itself as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” At this point, that’s just a quaint callback to the days of P.T. Barnum, but it does set up an expectation that the show will deliver some great performances.
Does it deliver? Mostly. Sort of.
The conceit of Legends is that the show presents “awe-inspiring feats of daring, spectacles of strength, and thrills of wonder to summon the mythical and mysterious creatures of the past: a unicorn, a pegasus, and a woolly mammoth.”
Now, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a “traditional” circus, so I was a little unsure of what to expect. Were there animal acts? Quite a few, actually. Were there elephants? Yes, there were. Were they mistreated? Certainly not on display for everyone to see. Were they integral to the show? Absolutely not.
As a quick aside, I’ve actually visited and toured the Ringling Bros’ Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. This is the home of all of the retired elephants (or those that “didn’t take” to circus life). It’s also where all of the elephants will be sent once they’re eliminated from the traveling shows. I’ll be writing more about this soon, but–in short–I’ve seen where the elephants live, I’ve spoken to their trainers, and I’ve come closer to those animals than most.
The Legends show is evidence that Ringling Bros is moving toward a more acrobat-centric form of circus and becoming less reliant on big animal performances. Following in the footsteps of Cirque du Soleil (which uses no animals) and Big Apple Circus (which uses very few, and all of them domestic), Legends seems to focus more on human acrobatics and skill.
Chinese acrobats, trapeze artists, and motorcycle stunt riders stole the show for most of the audience. These acts genuinely impressed with thrilling stunts and incredible athletes.
The motorcycle daredevils were particularly impressive. Enclosed within a 16-foot-wide steel sphere, eight riders travel up to 60 mph mere inches from one another. It’s actually very cool…
As I said, there were still animal acts, but they mostly felt superfluous, especially–ironically–the elephants. The elephants could be completely cut from this show tomorrow, and they honestly wouldn’t be missed. Their performance was thankfully short and not very demanding (on them), but it was also totally unnecessary.
The same could be said for the “lion tamer” act. I’ve never been a fan of this act, even as a kid. Ten lions and tigers in a carefully controlled cage with a single human performer. This was by far the lowlight of the evening. It was sad to see such powerful and majestic creatures “tamed” and “under the control” of the performer.
But let’s not kid ourselves. They’re far from tame. Those cats could rip out his throat in seconds if they wanted to. Indeed, one lioness decided to go on the offensive during the performance and backed the tamer up against the cage. For a few seconds, his fear was palpable. This was not part of the performance. Her snarling was genuine, and she could’ve made quick work of him if she cared to.
The other animal acts involved dogs, horses, and other farm animals–which most people, ironically, have no problem with. I mean, you don’t usually see an uproar about something like this:
The circus, unfortunately, has become a very polarizing experience. You either love it or you hate it. There are far too few voices in the middle, like me, who recognize its merits while acknowledging its faults. The circus has a deep history, especially when it still carries the name Barnum, but that doesn’t mean it needs to desperately cling to that history to the detriment of its present.
Ringling Bros has room to grow and develop. Cutting the elephants is a positive step, don’t get me wrong, and I am glad to see it happen. But Feld needs to put more faith in its human performers. Look to Cirque du Soleil and follow their example if not their lead.
After all, which is more impressive?