Since not much happened this week, I thought it might be a good time to answer a question that's come up a lot lately.
First, real quick, this blog is not a soapbox. It's not a place where I want to start broadcasting my opinion or trying to convince people to share my viewpoint. It was always meant to be a log, a day-to-day description of my experiences with the circus. And I'd like to keep it that way :)That said, since the elephants have left I have been somewhat more vocal in sharing my opinions and experiences, and in describing Ringling's animal care practices. Several folks, including family, have asked why I feel the need to speak out about an issue that technically shouldn't concern me (I am just "in the band" after all!). But it's hard for me to give a short answer to this. I thought it might be a good time to explain myself, even if it means soapboxing a little. Grab a snack.
When I joined the circus in 2012, I knew nothing about elephants. But seeing them almost every day during shows, during down time, at the train, outdoors, inside...I began to learn things simply by watching. I used to wonder what those dark spots were on the elephants' hips, until I saw an elephant casually leaning against a wall between shows and realized that it was a callus on her hips from a pressure point, from leaning on things. I wondered whether the elephants were chained at night, until one evening after a night out I was walking past the elephant barn and saw Luna curled up in a pile of sand, with a long fluffy padded cable attached to her hind leg, leaving her plenty of slack to move around comfortably.
As I became more comfortable at my new job, I began to get to know the veterinarians, handlers, and trainers who worked alongside the elephants. I got to see firsthand how carefully a handler would go over an elephant's feet to check for cracks in the nails or any infirmities. I saw representatives from the USDA walking into the animal compound for inspections or sitting in the audience taking notes on clipboards. I saw the elephants receiving better food than I was getting from Pie Car (no offense Pie Car). Over time I watched as Mable's trainer taught her to swing a jump rope, play the harmonica, spin a hula hoop, and more, all using simple reward and repetition training. I listened in fascination as one of Siam's trainers described trying to teach her to paint using non-toxic paint and pieces of fruit. But Siam did not like either the smell or the feel of the paint and refused to paint no matter what rewards were offered. So the training was dropped in favor of other actions that Siam preferred. I saw firsthand the attention and care that each animal received. And I got to hear lots of great stories about elephants past and present :)
(paint and fruit slices for painting practice. Photo courtesy Adria C.)In 2013, I was offered the opportunity to participate in an animal walk. As the animals walked from the train to the arena, I and some other volunteers would stand between the animals and the onlookers, making sure people stayed on the sidewalks and holding a yellow rope to discourage anyone from dashing into the street. In return we'd get lunch. This sounded fairly easy (and also exciting!) so I decided to do it. Here is a photo that I took before my first animal walk.
Many things about that first walk were exciting and new. But starting with this walk, there were certain things that stuck with me and grew within my heart.
The first thing I noticed was that the onlookers loved it. They loved to see the animals, and even adults in the midst of a busy work day ran out to the street to watch the elephants go by. Children stared and shrieked in wonder as the elephants swung their trunks around and occasionally trumpeted. Even the police escorting us wore huge smiles and would sometimes stop to take pictures.
The protesters hated it. We had been told beforehand that there would be protesters and that we shouldn't speak to them, but I couldn't have been prepared for what they would say to us. They followed us for the entire mile-long walk, screaming insults at the handlers, at us volunteers, at the police for escorting us. Yelling as loudly as they could about all kinds of horrible things that they imagined were happening to the elephants (and the elephants only) under Ringling's care. Taunting anyone who held an elephant guide, asking whether they enjoyed hitting the elephants more with the hooked end or the flat end. And when they started running out of imagined horrors, they switched to personal insults, criticizing one handler's weight and making jibes about other handlers' appearances. In my short time on this planet, I had never been in the presence of such unprovoked, undeserved hatred from one group of strangers to another. These people were yelling at ME, and I didn't work with animals at all. It was stressful and frightening, and I found myself shaking a little with nerves and frustration at not being able to defend myself.
But Ringling's animal specialists didn't bat an eye. They walked alongside their animals, shouting the occasional "move up" or "tail" above the screaming protesters to keep the elephants together and moving at a good pace. They didn't so much as look in the direction of anyone shouting for their attention. Their focus was entirely on their animals and on getting them safely to the arena. As the walk came to an end, I found myself in awe of their composure in the face of such inhuman behavior...and such horrible accusations. For Ringling's animal specialists, this barrage of hatred and ignorance is their daily routine. And every day they have faced it with their heads held high, because they know, and their employer knows, and everyone who works in the circus knows, that they have nothing to be ashamed of. I gained a huge amount of respect for elephant crew that day, and saw their struggle through new eyes.
Over the next several years, I was privileged to participate in around twenty animal walks and elephant brunches. We encountered more excited faces, and more rage-filled protesters spitting hate. But what really got to me...what really started to bother me...was the doubt.
The first time someone from the crowd approached me was during an elephant brunch. We animal walkers had done our job and were standing in a row by a temporary fence set up to keep people back as the elephants ate. A gentleman looking to be in his late 50s/early 60s leaned over to me and said, "Those elephants are so beautiful! So beautiful! You guys are doing a fantastic job. Thank you for all the work that you do." Like most people he didn't know that I didn't work with the animals. I smiled and thanked him. He continued: "What is with those crazy people? (referring to the protesters) I can't believe they have the nerve to say those things. What idiots!" He chuckled and shook his head. I just smiled and shrugged. Yep, those protesters are pretty unbelievable! What can you do!
Then he leaned in closer, lowered his voice, and said, "So tell me, really...DO they beat the elephants?"
I was shocked, and stood there dumbly as this man continued to look at me earnestly, as though waiting for some kind of confession. I couldn't even begin to think of a response. My thought process was something like this: "Is he serious? Does he BELIEVE those people? What does he expect me to say? Is this a trick? But he just finished complementing us..."
In the end, all I could do was shake my head and say "No, no of course not." He nodded and smiled and backed off, but I could see that he wasn't satisfied or convinced. He wanted an explanation. He wanted proof. And having worked at the circus for less than a year, I couldn't offer either.
He was the first, and there were plenty more to follow. Mothers holding babies, smiling and encouraging their toddlers to wave at the elephants, then turning to me with a worried smile and asking, "Are they well cared-for? They're not...chained, are they?" The young man who'd come to photograph the elephants during a walk, jogging to keep up, wanting to know if this was all the excercise the elephants ever got. The two businesswomen who had waited outside their office to see the elephants go by, and as we hurried past I caught a snatch of their conversation: "...should never have been taken from the wild. Those are wild animals, they need to be free." And I bit my tongue, and bit it again and again, and felt frustrated and helpless.
Although I couldn't talk to protesters (and didn't particularly want to), I could talk to the everyday people who had come to enjoy the animals. But what was the good of that if I didn't know what to say? So I started listening more carefully to the concerns I was hearing. When I heard, "That bullhook looks sharp," I went to a handler and asked to see her bullhook, which she willingly let me hold. And I was able to see for myself that it was neither sharp nor a "torture device", and the next time someone asked me worried questions about the bullhook, I was able to describe the tool in detail and help ease their fears. I had already seen that the elephants were not chained, but between shows, at random times, without warning, I would walk by the elephant barn and look to see what the elephants were up to. After all, they only perform for a maximum of 40 minutes per day, so I was curious to see what they did for the other 23 hours. As a result I got to see the elephants doing all kinds of things: playing with toys, sleeping in the sun, eating, playing in water, rolling in sand, dust bathing, learning new skills, puzzling over enrichment items. The only time I ever saw them tethered was at night, always by only one leg. And so when people had concerns about the elephants being chained, after threeish years of observation, I could confidently say that no, Ringling's elephants are not chained, and describe what I had seen.
This is by no means a part of my job; I chose to do these things myself. I just thought that if only everyone could see what I saw, they'd understand that their fears were unfounded. Through my experiences as just an average person who happened to work for the circus, I thought that I could help alleviate peoples' fears and misconceptions.
But at the end of the day, I am one person, and one person's voice can't be heard over the hateful screams of thousands. And although most people seemed to view the protesters as "crazy", the level of doubt grew and grew.
Last year it was announced that the elephants would be retired to the Center for Elephant Conservation. I think it's fair to say that everyone in the circus was upset. I had a lot of feels myself. But I think many held out hope that something might change during those three years. Perhaps a public outrcry, I don't know. But when the timeline for retirement was moved up by a whole year and a half, well...that hope was crushed. It was time to say goodbye.
But that wasn't and won't be the end of it. Not a week after the elephants were gone, protesters were back out in force dressed in tiger costumes and screaming about tiger abuse (just the tigers of course, never mind those other animals). When Ringling or the CEC posted elephant updates to their timelines, they were immediately bombarded with accusations, hateful words, and vague demands that the animals be "freed". And circuses are still fighting in city halls across America for their right to own and display their animals.
For most people, circus animals have nothing to do with their day to day lives, and so they are content to let government offices decide whether circuses should have animals or not. I understand that apathy. I knew nothing and cared nothing about circus animals when I first arrived here. But since then, I have learned a great deal. And one of the most important things I've learned is that this fight is bigger than the circus, and it WILL at some point effect us all.
My experiences with this circus and the knowledge I've gained here, coupled with the happenings of the past year, are the reason I've decided to speak out more and share what I have learned with others. I do NOT claim to be a know-it-all or any kind of expert. This is not a show of loyalty for my employer; there is a lot that I don't know and will never know about how Feld Entertainment operates, and frankly it's none of my business.
This is me having a moral issue with animal rights tactics. This is me feeling that silence is the worst response. This is me hoping that it's not too late for people to stop believing their worst nightmares and start believing in the reality: that the vast majority of us love and care for our animals.
The animal rights agenda has found that the circus is an easy target for harassment. The current popular way to show that you don't approve of animal abuse is to demonize the circus. But I'm sorry, the easiest things and the most popular things are not always the right things. I am scared and intimidated by the hate and aggression that fuels animal rights. But I'm also afraid of a world where we've all been cowed into submission by hate-filled people who would act like monsters to get their way.
So...that's why I feel the need to speak out and get involved. Thank you for listening.