Animal Acts and the Circus
The Terror and Subjugation of Entertainment Animals
During the Seven Year’s War, and English entrepreneur named Phillip Astley began an equestrian act that would become the antecedent of the modern American circus. In 1793, Bill Ricketts cultivated Astley’s idea and opened the first one ring show in Philadelphia to great acclaim and success. Soon after in 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown developed a canvas tent to house performers and the travelling circus was founded. Along with the awe inspiring trapeze artists, amazing strongmen, daring tightrope walkers and enigmatic ring masters, a hidden legacy of cruelty and animal abuse was born alongside this American tradition.
As equestrian acts gave way to exotic menageries it was clear to the owners that their audiences were enthralled by the majesty and grandeur of their exotic beasts. To the circus, animals meant money and it wasn’t long before they were being trained to perform alongside humans. Common sense dictates that training a wild animal requires more than praise and treats but circus propaganda insists that attaboys and snacks are enough. It is a lie, circus animals are abused. They are beaten, whipped, chained by their ankles, made to live the majority of their existence in cages and are subjected to psychological torture by the very people who call them “family”.
When animals are made to perform unnatural acts in taxing environments everyone suffers. Once the pain and confusion become too much to bear, these animals experience horrific breakdowns and turn on their handlers. In the end, there is sorrow and death. The circus is no place for animals.
Live animal acts put both the performer and the people around it in danger. Firstly, some of the acts require elephants to hold unnatural positions two or more times daily for weeks on end. These positions restrict the inner organs and put stress on muscles and joints which are not genetically designed to hold that much weight. Pachyderms are designed to distribute their thousands of pounds between four points, not two. The older elephant performers suffer painful arthritis as a result.
In 1996, tuberculosis reemerged in two elephants housed at the Hawthorn Farm in Illinois. The USDA states that this is a case of reverse zoonosis, humans transmitting to animals. Regardless of how it began, that year 12 handlers from that farm were also diagnosed with TB. In the 15 years since, the number of elephants diagnosed with TB has risen to 51 despite the best efforts of the USDA to treat the disease [ (Susan K. Mikota, 2011) ]. Infected animals do not always show physical symptoms and the disease can lay dormant indefinitely. Trunk washes are the common method for testing elephants but are not always accurate. Since elephants are commonly rented out to different shows and circuses the spread of TB is difficult to control. Knowing this, many circuses and animal shows still offer elephant rides to the public.
Like any animal, circus animals are trained through operant conditioning. OC methods are where an animal changes its own behavior when a stimulus is applied. It is akin to positive reinforcement in dog training. On their website, Ringling Brothers Circus say, “…Reinforced through a system of reward and repetition, these abilities and behaviors are linked together on cue which ultimately becomes the routine that you see at a Ringling Bros. Circus.” They also will tell you on a FAQ page, “Anyone with a dog knows that training takes patience, praise and lots of treats, but the outcome is a secure, stimulating life for the animal. The same principles hold true for an elephant. “ Through videos, pictures and the testimony of former employees, these statements have been exposed as blatant lies. An animal trainer carries weapons not treats. Elephant trainers are always shown with bull-hooks in hand. Large cat trainers always have whips. Even the horse...
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