Victory for Ringling Bros. Elephants? Not so fast.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus just announced plans to phase out elephant acts from its performances by 2018. The Associated Press broke the news.

Don’t miss the bottom paragraph. The people in charge of the largest group of elephants in North America say the 43 will be “retired” near Orlando’s tourist attractions, so the elephants, in addition to being available for elephant researchers, are slated ultimately for public display. Swapping the circus for a zoo is no bargain.

I hope the elephants are indeed let out of these degrading shows. I have been moved to protest — alone, when I could find no companions — by the sight of elephants paraded through downtown Baltimore, right past the law school. And while I’m sure it’ll come as a relief to the elephants to be spared the street parades, the amplifiers and the acrobatics under the stage lights, that relief does not address the fundamental fairness issue. On whose terms will the elephants live — ours or theirs? Other questions are all details springing from the root injustice, which involves a group of officious primates maintaining supremacy over their lives, bodies, histories, and all of their daily affairs.

Last month, I read the news that Ringling Bros. introduced its “Xtreme Camel Act” with Mongolian camel stunt riders. That tells us, loud and clear, how little this business comprehends or cares about the harm it does.

8 thoughts on “Victory for Ringling Bros. Elephants? Not so fast.

  1. Thank you for the clarity you bring to issues. While Ringling Bros. will stop transporting shackled elephants from city to city in urine and feces-piled railroad freight cars this must not cloud the remaining injustices. The closest we can come is releasing them to the care of large sanctuaries. We should remember that Ringling is a division of Feld Entertainment, the company that produces Disney On Ice, Disney Live, and several major productions centered on monster trucks and racing among other businesses. If you want to end Ringling’s use of all animals, create active boycotts of their Disney and other shows.

  2. I do wonder if the animal rights community is being led by the nose more often than we care to consider. Doesn’t it seem that, in general, we accept the “victories” as packaged and presented by the animal industries we seek to dismantle? Your point about the new camel “act” is well made. I call this cognitive dissonance.
    How obvious should it be that this is a maneuver to avoid the stock crash Ringling Brothers has watched Sea World experience? These 43 (!) elephants are being moved to a single, 200 acres facility in 3 years. They doubtless need 3 years to build barns and pens to hold these individuals. Wikipedia informs me that many elephants at that facility are kept chained and indoors all the time. This is cognitive dissonance on the part of animal rights advocates.

  3. I agree with you completely and am so glad you wrote this. Thank you for your love and intelligence, Lee! The world needs voices like yours. Xoxo, Charlotte

  4. It IS a huge victory in that, if indeed it comes to pass, these sensitive animals will no longer be shipped about as Will Anderson’s comment notes. They also won’t be brutalized to teach them to perform humiliating tricks for human enjoyment. Additionally, Ringling has stated that this is due to the changing perception of how these animals should be treated, increasing regulations against the circus, etc. The entire issue is getting a lot of press and it sends a very strong anti-animal exploitation message.

    It was activists who focused on elephants, and the Ringling announcement can now be pointed to as a precedent for other entities that are exploiting elephants, and for the wrongness of exploiting other species in this way.

    Yes, we should be aware of the implications of the announcement, and no, the war isn’t over, but a major battle has been won. (If indeed Ringling follows through with its announcement, which is why the pressure needs to stay on.) We should celebrate the animals’ victories rather than view everything with a pessimistic eye.

  5. Lee wrote: “On whose terms will the elephants live — ours or theirs? Other questions are all details springing from the root injustice, which involves a group of officious primates maintaining supremacy over their lives, bodies, histories, and all of their daily affairs.”

    As slaves with no rights of personhood, they can only hope for kinder treatment somewhere down the road with a new owner, or, best case scenario, a good sanctuary. Whether imprisoned former free-living or born into slavery, the above is a perfect description of the lives of all domesticates. Let’s call it as it is –domestication is slavery!

  6. With all due respect to those holding different opinion, I insist this is no “small victory” and it is not pessimistic to say so with full conviction. It is a concession still in favor of the human exploitation system (and green pieces of paper that fuel it) over the “other” (i.e. non-human) who wants to be free from such. Lee’s words are right on the nose, as she pointed out that the elephants will be forced to live by another species’ terms and certainly not by their own. This is the root of the matter. If no one hacks at the root (which is animal exploitation/human dominance belief system/speciesism), the problems that come with those injustices continue to branch out; oftentimes stronger than before, particularly if some pruning…, or “small victories” as some would call them, have been conducted. I therefore shudder to think what intensified forced “performing” the remaining animals at Ringling will have to undergo, to make up for lost profits the “retired” elephants might cause. Isn’t Ringling still counting on their live animal acts to bring in the audience and their cotton-candy-coated dollars?

    When authentic veganism is adopted and put to the test, in time it “naturally” develops an anti-speciesist stance, IMHO. That said, some vegan activists advocating for the freedom of animals may feel it can be important to fight for specific issues. When doing so, I caution them NOT to do so at the expense of other species. It seems common for people to fight for the rights of one particular animal species (as in the “circus” elephants here) by claiming they have greater capacity for emotions, suffer more, have higher intelligence, are endangered, … whatever claims might tug the heartstrings or sear the conscience. However, in speaking out ONLY for the elephants at Ringling, this sends messages to the general public that things pertaining to elephants are relevant in determining whether or not that specific animal deserves some form of “freedom” and protection (… if only in a limited capacity, as Lee and Will explained above), and in doing so, ignores and thus further harms other species who are also treated as performing captives in the circus. To the best of my knowledge (from internet sources), Ringling has made it clear that they intend to continue their use of live animal acts, including (but not limited to) tigers, camels, dogs, horses, and lions. Why aren’t THEY being equally addressed? Why send the message that elephants are the top (or only) priority? The day Ringling admits that they have made a grievous error (in believing that animals are, in fact, theirs to use as they please and profit from as long as possible) and seeks sincere restitution/reparation in some respectable manner … will be the day I consider a REAL VICTORY has been achieved over “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Settling for less injustice — i.e. a small “victory” as some would call this cognitive dissonance (thanks, Meg) — means we get exactly that. LESS than what is just.

    To sum up:
    For those who choose to tackle single issues, every effort should be made to be VERY, very clear to the public that ALL exploitation is wrong. It’s easy to focus on all the reasons a specific form of exploitation should not be happening, but it’s important to address it in a manner that makes it clear to even the youngest child that this issue is not an exception among exploitative contexts. All are wrong.

    Thank you, Lee, for writing what needed to be recognized. A wonderful talent of yours!

    Thank you, Will, for giving us the active boycotting tip. I will look further into this and forward your advice.


    (P.S. Credit goes to ace102, where I learned some of these ideas from.)

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