Thomas Edison electrocutes Topsy at Coney Island, 1903.
I was rather struck by the implicit assertion of book reviewer Christopher Corbett, reviewing what sounds like a good read, Michael Daly's Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, that the widespread beating and abuse of circus elephants, alleged to have been a pervasive reality way back when, has not much changed.
In the conclusion to his review, published in last Saturday's edition, writes Corbett:
"Not long ago I espied an op-ed by a flak for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus with the unfortunate last name of [Stephen] Payne. It assured readers that, despite what they may have been told by PETA, the best thing that ever happened to the pachyderm was the Greatest Show on Earth. Having read Topsy, I realize that Mr. Payne must still believe that there's a sucker born every minute."
Evidently, the book is rife with graphic accounts of horrendous cruelty to elephants in years gone by, and I'm not disinclined to believe it. But society and times have changed, at least in many quarters.
Now, I'm not about to swallow Feld press kit spinning without question, but if I am naive in my impression that animal abuse in general has significantly decreased over the years, then, well, I guess I am one of those numerous suckers to whom Mr. Corbett alludes. I'd rather like to think that some book reviewers still wear their politics on their sleeves.
Most telling here is the book's (or the book review's) apparent agenda to implicate the circus world, in particular P.T. Barnum himself, however nebulously, in Topsy's murder. In fact, P.T. Barnum died a good ten years before the event took place.
I have a sneaking impression that either author Michael Daly and/or book reviewer Christopher Corbett are avid anti-traditional circus advocates. It is one thing to objectively acknowledge past acts of egregious abuse to animals. Another, to review a book about them with a reckless broad stroke of the pen, to imply that, well, maybe little has changed.
I refuse to make it easy for Messrs Daly and Corbett to remain smug in their pat positions, because the situation is hardly as black and white as they evidently prefer viewing it. Yes, along with great progress in the handling of circus animals, there are those distubing episodes, some caught on film, that raise serious questions. Once again, I wonder: Am I the only voice in the circus community still challenging those callously manipulative Felds to come clean on their claim that the PETA video showing elephant handlers backstage cursing out the elephants and hitting them with bull hooks for no apparent reason was "deceptively" edited? I am still waiting to be told by somebody how that footage that makes us all cringe a little was tinkered with. And I can almost hear some of you saying, "Oh, chill out David. Get over it. That was yesterday." Yesterday was only about three years ago.
I've addressed this issue in my book, Inside the Changing Circus, in my chapter, "Animal Attitudes," as I am once again addressing it right here.
However, on the other hand, there is massive evidence that for the most part circus animals are well tended to. And for this reason, I also believe that the circus community does the circus world an injustice by serving as no-question flacks for big top owners, by not pressing them, "them" being the Felds, to simply explain to us how a video, even if the abuse on display is modest, was "deceptively" edited in such a way as to present a false picture? They only help prolong lingering doubts and give more amunition to those arguing on the other side.
The animal abusers of today do not deserve a pass any more than book reviewers with an axe to grind.