A triumph for animal activists, a loss for nostalgic circus fans

By Kelsey Carolan

After May, the most famous circus of them all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, will never return to Philly again, and animal rights activists are roaring with delight.

“Society has changed, eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them,” said Bridget Dillon, campaign coordinator at peta2, the youth branch of the animal-rights organization PETA.

For more than 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has attracted millions of fans nationwide, serving as a staple of American pastime. In January, the attraction announced that its final performance would be in May. (The final Philadelphia stops were in February). Officials cited high operating costs and declining ticket sales as the reasons for closing, along with pressure from animal rights groups.

“Those few fleeting moments of ‘entertainment’ represent a lifetime of misery for animals,” Dillon said.

Dillon is one of many animal-rights activists who say the demise of Ringling Bros. was a long time in coming and is a form of liberation for animals.

Many Americans, old and young, though, feel a sense of sadness because a beloved part of American culture will soon be no more. Ringling Bros. has played a major role in many Americans’ childhoods, leaving indelible memories.

Much like a favorite song, some say the circus was always a reminder of a simpler time.

Rachel Casey, with husband Jeff and daughter Chloe, at the Wells Fargo Center, called the circus “a little piece of clean fun and entertainment.” Photo provided by Casey.

“For us it was giving our child a view of a time when the family unit was held precious, rather than what we are seeing in America today,” said Rachel Casey, mother of 1-year-old daughter Chloe. “A little piece of clean fun and entertainment without the political associations of every sport and TV show that we see these days.”

There are still thriving animal-free circuses that come to town each year, including Cirque du Soleil and Circus Vargas. Rather than animals performing tricks, acrobats and jugglers captivate the crowds, contributing to the ongoing American tradition of classic entertainment.

Nicole Rivard, who works in legislative outreach for Friends of Animals, questioned why the ending of the circus with animals has taken so long. “This … reflects a positive, long-overdue change in what people view as family entertainment,” she said.

As reported by PETA, a former Ringling Bros. employee claimed that in 2006, elephants were being brutally beaten with bullhooks and horses were being jabbed with pitchforks. Animal activists responded and have been questioning circuses ever since.

“Animals used in traveling acts such as circuses and petting zoos are carted from one town to the next and are treated like nothing more than equipment,” Dillon said. “They have no control over any aspect of their lives. Their eating and sleeping schedules are dictated by handlers, and they aren’t allowed to engage in any natural behaviors, including socializing, roaming, and foraging.”

Kimberly Jarosiewicz, 36, a mother of four and a Northeast Philadelphia high school teacher, said she has never taken her kids to the Ringling Bros. circus.

“I feel like it would be hypocritical of me since the circus is 100 percent exploiting animals,” Jarosiewicz said.

Because of this, she said she has instead purchased an annual pass to the Philadelphia Zoo and takes her children there.

“I like the education of the zoo, such as the little tables with animal feathers and bones, because unlike school, it appeals to learners with various different learning styles,” Jarosiewicz added. “I like how they have dedicated exhibits for conservation and environmental awareness.”

However, Dillon said the conditions for animals at the zoo aren’t much better than the circus.

“Animals in stationary exhibits such as zoos and aquariums are denied everything that is natural and important to them,” Dillon said.

Jarosiewicz added that her oldest daughter doesn’t enjoy the zoo as much as her younger children, possibly because she “is conscious of the effects on animal captivity.”

She too has some reservations about the zoo, recalling a 1995 fire at the Philadelphia Zoo in which 23 primates died.

“For me, it is sad to look at the big zoos,” Jarosiewicz said. “As a young girl, I remember the primate exhibit burning down, leaving the primates nowhere to go during the fire. As a result, many of the primates died in the enclosed fire.”

Just as Jarosiewicz’s daughter has become conscious of the effects that animal attractions, such as zoos and circuses, have on animals, other young people have started to become more involved in the fight against animal mistreatment.

“Now more than ever, young people everywhere are using their voices to get loud about injustices against humans and nonhuman animals,” Dillon said. “One person can make a difference — and it’s important to remember that all social justice movements were led at some point by ‘just one person’ who realized that a societal norm was cruel, unethical, and unjust.”

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