By Tom Regan
If it’s February in the Triangle, Ringling Brothers must be coming to town. (Shows run from February 4 to 9. at Raleigh’s RBC Center). And (sure as rain is wet) Animal Rights Advocates will be protesting. Many circus goers have a hard time understanding what we’re doing there. “Get a life!” is one of their most frequent terms of endearment.
Well, maybe we are over the top. Then again, maybe we’re not. To see where the truth lies, let’s have a conversation rather than a confrontation.
We don’t have to be Jane Goodall to understand that circuses don’t approximate the natural habitat of wild animals. It is not unusual for circuses to be on the road 48-50 weeks a year. En route from one venue to the next, animals are housed in trucks or train cars. Once at their destination, they face further confinement: lions and tigers in cages, for example.
Relevant federal regulations concerning cage size are worse than vague; they are dishonest. “Enclosures shall . . . provide sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement.” What counts as “sufficient space” or “adequate freedom of movement” is not specified; this is why the regulations are vague. The dishonesty arises because the regulations imply that cages can satisfy these requirements.
Consider: In the wild, the home range for lions varies from 8 to 156 square miles; for male tigers, from 8 to 60 square miles (in India) and up to 400 square miles (in Siberia). For the sake of comparison, consider that San Francisco and Boston occupy 47 and 48 square miles, respectively; Chicago, 227; New York City, including all five boroughs, 309 square miles.
No sensible person can believe that circuses provide lions and tigers “sufficient space” that affords them “adequate freedom of movement.”
The same is no less true of elephants. Home range varies from 5 square miles in a groundwater forest to over 1350 square miles in an arid savanna, an area more than four times the size of New York City. “Sufficient space.” ”Adequate freedom of movement.” These reassurances are absurd on their face.
Once in the circus, any semblance of social structure for the big cats is nonexistent. In their natural habitat, tiger cubs stay with their mothers for years. Mothers teach survival skills. Although males tend to lead a solitary existence, they sometimes cooperate with one another when hunting.
Lions are social creatures who live in groups called prides. Prides consist of as many as a dozen females and their offspring. The young are raised communally, but the bond between mothers and daughters lasts a lifetime. At the head of each pride is a dominant male or, sometimes, a group of males.
Confined in their cages, Ringling’s tigers and lions have no place to go and nothing to teach. Any sense of enduring community, any opportunity to participate in cooperative activities, is absent here.
And then there are the elephants. Elephants live in herds numbering anywhere from 8 to 15, with a dominant female in charge. Males leave at puberty, but daughters remain with their mothers for life. With a home range for African elephants extending 500 miles, the herd’s migratory routes must be taught by the elders.
None of this makes any sense in a circus environment. There are no matriarchs, no migratory routes, nothing that even suggests the life-way of these majestic animals.
Children of all ages used to say that an outdated circus like Ringling Brothers had to have a freak show. Thankfully, a new sensibility has taken root. When circuses stopped having freak shows, that was a good thing. As circuses put the nix on performing animals (and many have), that is a good thing too.
Patrons who only know archaic circuses like Ringling Brothers might think a circus without performing animals can’t be any fun. They should think again. Last year Cirque du Soleil performed to capacity audiences for three weeks in Raleigh. The night my wife and I attended, everyone stood as one and applauded after the finale, still wondering if all that we had seen had really happened. It was magical, all the more so because no animals performed.
So, the next time Ringling’s patrons see animal rights advocates protesting, maybe they’ll think twice before telling us to “Get a life!” It’s the animals who perform in circuses who need a life. Which is why all of us should boycott cruel circuses like Ringling Brothers.