Comment offered, 8/19: see update at end of story, below.
Just when the American public was beginning to give American circuses the benefit of the doubt, here comes perhaps the most troubling exposure of alleged animal mistreatment so far: the highly hyped PETA video showing Ringling elephants being beaten and cursed at while awaiting their performance time in the wings. It is, on face value, ugly. And, on face value, it may set back growing public support for animal acts by many seasons. Back at least to the wretchedly awful Carson & Barnes video.
Here is the greatest mystery of all, in my opinion: Why on earth was the “undercover” employee who filmed Ringling elephants apparently being mistreated not on Kenneth Feld's payroll? Feld is well known for paying ex-CIA operatives big money to infiltrate the lives of journalists and animal rights organizations. How utterly astonishing that he would not have his own undercover agents monitoring his circuses so that he can take corrective action when evidence of abuse surfaces.
Ringling gets most of the attention. Ringling is the story because it is the Big One. And so other shows that may be doing everything right, if that is possible, are bound to suffer.
The video has been all over the internet. It is causing moderate voices, who wanted to believe that circus animals are well take care of, to consider more seriously the opposition’s side.
The elephants in question, along with all of the animals on the Red Unit (Zing Zang Zoom), are, according to prominent attention given him in the program magazine, under the care and control of Alejandro “Alex” Vargas. His title is Animal Care Superintendent and Head Trainer. I’d like to hear what Mr. Vargas has to say for himself. He owes it to the circus world. So does Kenneth Feld.
If the video is “deceptively edited,” as Feld Entertainment claims (I question the clicking sounds), then Feld Entertainment should immediately explain to the world how the video has been deceptively edited. This is called, Mr. Feld, damage control.
I have often argued that in today’s hyper electronic landscape where anybody can secretly film backyard activities, no circus owner can dare risk condoning the kind of mistreatment that appears to be happening in this video. And I am also wondering if my own inside contacts over the years, asserting that circuses have cleaned up their act, have in fact mislead me. Even I feel uncomfortable over the thought of asking friends to go with me to a Ringling show. Most of all, I feel a great sadness.
Given Kenneth Feld’s concession in a courtroom of law that he is not regularly apprised of possible animal abuse within his own organization, we should not be surprised, I suppose, at his utterly inexplicable disengagement. Perhaps it is a conscious legal maneuver to protect himself. Whatever the case may be, there is evidently a dangerous disconnect between Vienna, Virginia and the circuses that Mr. Feld operates.
I have long defended and even praised Feld's apparent dedication to the best possible conditions and the most humane treatment for his animals. I now have grave doubts. The video reveals such a blatantly sinister contrast to all of the rosy media and customer materials issued by the Feld organization to sway public opinion in its favor.
It matters not if circus animals in general are actually better treated than their counterparts in other avenues of captivity, or if what appears to be a "beating" is barely felt by the pachyderms (I do not know). What matters are the increasing number of people for whom such imagery is understandably abhorrent.
This is a sad day for circus entertainment. Pray the Felds can shoot down this video's credibility with a persuasive corrective of their own. All animals are now banned in Bolivia. Other countries and local governments are continuously revisiting this most contentions of circus issues. Just when you may have thought it was safe to go back into the menagerie, this story is far from settled.
Say it isn't so, Jumbo.
The Besalou Baby Elephants -- Opal, far right, trained by Mac and Peggy MacDonald. Polack Bros. Circus 1955.
Update, 8/19: I knew there would be comments sent my way by Anonymous, whomever he/she/they are. Anonymous, I will not print your comments, whatever their possible accuracy, without your name — the issue is too contentious, and you implicate a number of people — but to show you how unafraid I am to represent your side, I will quote from Henry Ringling North’s 1960 book Circus Kings (page 248), more accurately than you do, and then place Mr. North’s comments in context, which you did not. North said, as you wish us to know, “they [the big cats] are all chained to their pedestals, and ropes are put around their necks to choke them down and make them obey. All sorts of brutalities are used to force them to respect the trainer and learn the tricks. They work from fear.” In context, North was offering high praise for Alfred Court, comparing his approach to other trainers. According to North, Court generally circumvented such cruel tactics, even though he employed some of those tactics to a degree: “He did start off with the animals collared and chained to their pedestals, but he began by making friends with them.”
Lastly, after citing examples of animal abuse over the years, you smugly conclude, “no one performing today would EVER do such things.” I don’t know. Although I did not relish the PETA video, it certainly did not contain the sort of action described by HRN above. I too, in years, past, noticed, for example, a very exasperated trainer whipping-spanking and jerking around his monkeys during a Polack Bros. circus performance; I think I know the famous name, but I can’t be sure, so I won’t implicate. The act struck me as pathetic. I’ve not seen that sort of act with any circus in many many years. The story is an open one.