Cruelty Under the Big Top

Sophia, Contributing Writer, 7-Green

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Imagine that you are a little kid again, holding your mother’s hand as she leads you under the huge red and white tent that screams, “CIRCUS!” Even before you enter, the colors and various murmurs and shouts from the crowd completely overwhelm you, but you are more excited than nervous. Your mother buys a huge bucket of popcorn for you and your sister to share, and you sit forward in your seat, excited. You gasp in delight as the animals march in: the majestic elephants, the fierce tigers, the proud lions. You can’t wait to see what tricks they’re capable of. You’ve only seen pictures in magazines of tigers jumping through flaming hoops and dancing elephants.

Then something strange catches your eye. One of the trainers forcefully whacks an elephant with a pointy-looking stick. You expect the elephant to kick or scream or try some other form of protest, but the elephant only moves forward slightly, as if it were used to such a beating. When you look closely at the elephant’s eyes, they look sad and far away. You choose to remain optimistic and decide that it must just be a gentle reminder for the elephant to keep moving.

But in reality, that “pointy stick” was a bull hook, and it was definitely not just a gentle reminder. In truth, circus animals are unfairly abused at many different circuses across the globe. Elephants are subjects to whips, electric prods, and bull hooks in order to be forced to perform, and they are beaten for the slightest disobedience. As Tom Rider told People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, “After my three years working with elephants in the circus, I can tell you that they live in confinement and they are beaten all the time when they don’t perform properly.” Pregnant mothers are in chains while giving birth, and the mother has to be restrained while her baby is dragged from her. The calves are then in chains on a concrete floor for 23 hours a day, practically unable to move. Elephants are also forced to perform when they’re obviously ill, and no veterinary care is provided.

A few common illnesses that circus elephants tend to get are pressure wounds, tuberculosis, foot infection, obesity, arthritis and zoochosis. Pressure wounds are not uncommon, formed by lying on hard surfaces like compressed dirt, concrete, or asphalt, which elephants are often forced to do. Tuberculosis also especially affects circus animals because of many stress factors such as starvation, painful punishment, poor water quality, and extreme confinement. Elephants are prone to foot infection, which can eventually lead to death. It is also the most common reason why circuses have to euthanize captive elephants. Obesity also takes a toll on elephants in circuses – in the wild, elephants walk thirty miles a day; in the circus, elephants hardly walk at all. Standing barefoot on concrete usually leads to arthritis in the ankles and knees. Zoochosis is a result of elephants being deprived of their natural environments and behaviors, which causes them to mentally shut down. Symptoms can include rocking back and forth, pacing, refusal to eat and self-harm.

And it’s not just the elephants that are treated unfairly. Big cats such as lions and tigers are also beaten and “broken.” They live in tiny, cramped cages, deprived of exercising, playing and socializing and forced to eat, drink, sleep and go to the bathroom in the same place. Much like the elephants, cubs are separated from their mothers before they would be in the wild, distressing both of them. Tigers are semi-nocturnal and like water, but in circuses they are forced to perform in the daytime and don’t have access to a watering hole. Also, tigers are deathly afraid of fire, but circuses are known for their trained tigers jumping through flaming hoops. Tigers only perform this trick when the fear of punishment overcomes their fear of fire. Big cats, like all circus animals, are trained through punishment and starvation. They are hit with sticks and dragged with heavy chains. Additionally, circuses are sometimes used as an excuse to transport big cats in and out of various countries.

You may be thinking, “What about the trainers? Don’t they feel bad about beating perfectly innocent animals?” Circuses claim that their animals do tricks out of love for their trainer, but in reality the tricks are a result of punishment and abuse. Trainers use brutal methods to keep control of their animals. However, many trainers have quit after seeing the procedures used to keep the animals in line. Archele Hundley worked for three months at Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus, and she quit after she saw a trainer ram a bull hook into an elephant’s ear for not lying down. Many other trainers have also resigned after witnessing firsthand the animals being beaten and punished.

Imagine you are a little kid again, holding your mother’s hand as she leads you out of the circus. You clutch the stuffed lion she bought for you at the gift shop and try to contribute to the conversation your family is having, but you can’t get the image of the strange pointy stick out of your head. When your mother asks if you enjoyed it, only your sister answers. You lean thoughtfully against the window, making pictures of the fog from your breath. But then something catches your eye. A large neon sign screams “RIGHT THIS WAY: A CRUELTY-FREE CIRCUS!” Your eyes widen. “Mom?” you ask. “Next time, can we go there?”


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Cruelty Under the Big Top