Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Exit the Elephants: In The Court of Public Opinion, A New Day for The Greatest Show on Earth?

Update, 3/12/16: Early reports have Cole Bros. Circus touring without any animals this year.
Not since the fall of the last Ringling-Barnum big top, in 1956, has the Greatest Show on Earth undergone so great a redefinition of itself.

Once upon a season, Americans counted the stature of a circus by the number of elephants it carried.  And once upon a merrier season, John Ringling North staged an elephant ballet scored by Igor Stravinsky, “choreographed” by George Balanchine.  Another year, he hosted a fashion show atop the pachyderms.

Now the elephants are to exit.  Several years ago, big top boss Kenneth Feld, faced with growing pressure to cease presenting animal acts for which there was mounting evidence of abuse by his presenters, told the media that when the public stopped coming to his shows — then, he would pay attention and act.

Los Angeles takes a stand

Well, in the court of public opinion, that day has come. In the words of Alana Feld, cutting clean to the chase:  "There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers.  A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."

You can blast PETA and its affiliate groups for shameless misrepresentations, but you can’t blast the American public for being turned off by YouTube evidence filmed backstage at Ringling, of apparent callous (if not actually cruel) mistreatment  of a group of elephants being readied to go on.  Here is where Kenneth Feld made his worst strategic blunder.  He claimed the YouTube, posted in 2008, had been misleadingly edited, but then never made good on the claim.  Animal-rights protestors (many of them, understandably bothered by such evidence) still push the video in hand-out leaflets, while standing outside arenas when the circus comes to town.

Kenneth Feld and his lawyers were able to prove liable against the circus by various  animal-rights groups.  But, in the end, they could not explain away the “misleadingly edited” YouTube. And so, for that reason and others, the court of public opinion finally caught up with them.  It caught up with them in Entertainment Central, in this unfaltering instance, not unnoticed by major media, the Los Angeles City Council voting last year to ban the use of elephant bull hooks.  An inconvenient year later, the same thinking spread north to the City of Oakland.  California was fast closing its arena doors to the Greatest Show on Earth.

Feld's fatal testimony

As much as Feld may be a lover of the elephant preservation compound he fosters — or of its imagery to counteract all that noise out there against him, behind the scenes, his elephants handlers, at least on occasion, do not conform to what the public has come to expect.

I actually believed — or wanted to believe — that the man had a genuine love for the elephants.  I also came to believe that he is well aware of things that go on behind his back but has kept free of those things — to the dangerous point of not wishing to be regularly apprised by his staff  —  in order not to have to testify against himself or his operation.  Indeed, this practice leaked out in his testimony before a judge when Feld admitted to not always been informed of such actions.  How blatantly it contradicted the man’s alleged high concern for animal abuse in his own house. In that one stunning revelation, I lost faith in the man’s sincerity.

And what about the other shows?

Ringling Bros. is still the Big One.  The Big Show. And it is filthy rich -- a well-earned testament to  its skill in production and marketing. .  The Feld family is apparently loaded with producing talent to last for future generations.  Theirs is the circus that draws most of the major media attention, and so the question: Will other smaller big tops be forced by pressure or declining patronage in their own markets to follow suit?   They may be able, each, to make a case for themselves and their animal trainers, but to do this, they will have to separate themselves from those nasty videos that will not go away -- from the Ringling YouTube and, even more so, from the more lethally damming strip of film, secretly made years before, of Tim Frisco going nuts in a Carson and Barnes Circus barn, viciously breaking in a group of pachyderms.  

These things can not be talked away.    Sadly, they will hurt the efforts of all trainers, no matter how ethical they may be, to continue training and presenting wild animals.    Perhaps the saddest part of this tale is how our nation’s most famous and long-lasting circus turned out itself to be have been a prime contributor to the anti-animal cause.

The ever changing, never changing circus has a way

They said Barnum was done when Jumbo died (a line from the film, The Greatest Show on Earth).  They said the tented circus was done when John Ringling North, in 1956, declared it “a thing of the past.” But his dire pronouncement clarified,  “as it then exists.” North alluded to the colossal costs incurred in operating a three-train railroad show, a mammoth enterprise increasingly difficult to fund and move from city to city, where nearby parking lots were growing scarcer.   

A new day for the Greatest Show on Earth?

There can be little doubt that the animal rights movements ultimately drove down attendance at Ringling dates.  Where once they played to ten thousand on good nights, now the number was closer to half that (my best guess).

Now, Ringling-Barnum stands to benefit the most from Feld’s decision.  Indeed, it may be facing a glorious new era of rebounding parsonage , as parents adverse to elephant acts flock once again to the circus, their children happily in toe.  Horses and dogs?  A pig through a barrel?  A monkey peddling a bike?   The public will have no problem at all embracing these types of acts.  For years Big Apple Circus has done well enough featuring horses and dogs. 

Droves of families who have stayed a way will no doubt return, wanting to enjoy a circus that still knows how to find the best acts in the world, and how to shape and merge them into dazzling spectacle long associated with the glory days of the three ring American circus, albeit without those three rings. 

The story is not over  

Kenneth Feld's best move would be to sign the UK’s Thomas Chipperfield, who has become something of a poster boy for how tigers and lions can be humanely trained, what with his home made videos showing him at work with his charges.  Especially at this sensitive moment in Ringling history, Chipperfield would be a great asset to the new Greatest Show on Earth,  Don’t count out the millions of parents, even of the liberal class, who want their children to witness uplifting interactions between man and beast.

In the beginning, In London Town, there were horses.  There were no elephants.  Perhaps that is where we are headed for, back to the beginning.

So say goodbye — for a while — to the elephants on parade!   And pray they may one day return.   In the court of public opinion, inevitably, a good case made for a good act kindly trained and cared for will have its day.  The court is never fully adjourned.

Photos, from the top down:

Ringling Bros. finale at Madison Square Garden, Circa 1954
Kenneth Feld and his three producing daughters
Richard and Edith Barstow, Ringling directors, with a baby elephant ready for its carriage ride in  the  1955 production number, featuring 55 pachyderms, Mama's in the Park -
Baby Opal, Polack Bros. Circus, 1955
Elephant pyramid at the recent Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, Monaco

First posted March 7, 2015.  So much has happened in so little time.    


Douglas McPherson said...

On light note, I just read a report that the US army is training elephants to sniff out mines. So there are at least some employment opportunities for laid-off jumbos, although if I was an elephant I'd rather take my chances in the circus than the bomb squad!
On a serious note, does elephant training have to be any more cruel than training other animals? The hook can be used cruelly, but so can a horse-rider's whip. Over here, when Anne the elephant was moved from a circus to a supposed sanctuary at Longleat Safari Park, animal rights groups were perturbed to see the bullhook still in use. But the park director defended its use as a harmless guiding tool in correct use. Here's a link to zoo guidelines on elephant management, training and use of the hook in what they call free contact situations (the kind of close contact between handlers and elephants in circuses, but also standard practise in most zoos):
I also found a YouTube clip of a free contact expert showing a TV presenter how to use the hook to make an elephant lay down for vet treatment. The presenter commented that the hook wasn't as sharp as it looked and that she barely had to apply any pressure:
The more I look into this the more I think the way forward is regulation and good practise, rather than prohibition. While there are undoubtedly bad apples out there, I'm also starting to think that trainers like Thomas Chipperfield are actually in the majority.

Showbiz David said...

To Anonymous, who began your comment, which I have not posted, with, "Do you honestly believe that the controversy started with You Tube videos"

If you wish to resubmit your comments and tell us who you are, I will consider posting, but I would need to verify who you are, given the severity of your claims about widespread animal abuse.

Let me say one thing: I do NOT claim to be a "circus expert," certainly not with regard to the treatment of animals. It would be foolish and misleading of me to make such a pretentious claim. One would have to have observed how circus animals are trained in depth to make such a claim.

When is the public ever allowed to watch circus animal trainers actually breaking in and training their charges? I base my comments essentially on the evidence that is out there.

I have remained purposely neutral on the issue in order to consider all sides.

If that to you is naivete, so be it.

I do, however, attach my name to my reporting as well as to my opinions. You do not.

The issue is a very complex one, ill-served by apparent Feld Entertainment claims in the past which they did not then back up. I believe that act alone hurt them and the Amrican circus world as well.

Ryan Easley said...

The public is always welcome to see my tigers during training. I do some of it during "doors" before the performance.

Showbiz David said...


You give us hope. I was about to, or will sometime say, that the real "experts" have to be the trainers themselves. And the more they are willing to share -- like you, like Thomas Chippefield -- with the public, the better off will all circuses be.

Guy said...

Having just attended Ringling & Barnum's "Legends" here in Washington, DC, I can attest to the warm welcome the audience gave the elephants upon each and every entrance they made. They are absolutely beautiful animals. Children stopped playing with their novelty toys the moment the pachyderms entered the ring(s). I do hope they make a comeback and don't fade from the circus landscape entirely. Though elephants can be observed at zoo's, seeing even one parade right in front of you is nothing less than spectacular!

Showbiz David said...

Well said, Guy. Just seeing the elephants on parade!