Monday, December 31, 2007

For The Love Of Animals, Avoid The Circus

For the love of animals, avoid the circus
Special to The Palm Beach Post

Sunday, December 23, 2007

By Duncan Strauss

On Wednesday, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus lumbers into the South Florida Fairgrounds Expo Center in Palm Beach County for 12 performances. To those considering stepping into the big top to attend one of these shows, I offer this polite request:

Please don't.

Who am I - some animal-hating killjoy out to spoil your fun? Far from it. I'm a father, a pretty passionate animal lover and, not coincidentally, I host a radio program about animals that airs on Tampa National Public Radio affiliate WMNF.

I do not claim to be a renowned animal expert. But over the years, I've done a great deal of research into an array of animal matters. In hosting the show, I've had the good fortune to interview a number of renowned animal experts, experiences that have yielded one indisputable conclusion:

Animals in circuses endure a relentlessly awful life, marked by constant travel in cramped quarters, where access to food and water and proper veterinary care can't always be counted on, but punishment, pain, cruelty and, sometimes, premature death can be.

Hyperbole? Hardly. Any unit of Ringling Bros. is on the road for six to 11 months at a time, typically traveling in small train cars or trucks that are often poorly ventilated and/or lack basic creature comforts.

But the travails of transportation practically seem glorious alongside the covert and overt cruelty of the training that prepares - if that's the right word - these animals to perform in "the greatest show on Earth." Allow me to pose two related rhetorical questions:

Do you think that tigers - who, like most animals, are deathly afraid of fire - would be naturally inclined to jump through a ring of fire?

Do you think that elephants would be naturally inclined to balance on a colorful perch, stand on their hind legs or heads, or dance?

The answer, of course, is a resounding "No." So, to achieve the sort of unnatural and physically challenging behaviors described above and others, the training is fear-driven, revolving around punishing and hurting the animals: whipping them, beating them with rods, etc.

Elephants often are restrained, then beaten until they understand not to fight back. The chief tool of the elephant training trade is the bull hook, or ankus, which is heavy and clublike and has a pointy, sharp tip. Imagine a heavy and sharp fireplace poker. The trainers hit the elephants with the bull hook in various parts of their body, so that they comply - "learn."

Sounds too horrendous to believe, doesn't it? But there is plenty of testimony by former Ringling employees that says as much, and lots of video that shows as much - some of it as new as this year. To see an extensive array of germane video footage in less than eight minutes, you could hardly do better than watching the award-winning piece on Ringling and its abuse of Asian elephants by television journalist Leslie Griffith, who has won nine local Emmys and two Edward R. Murrow Awards, It's at

Keen observers of Ms. Griffith's work will notice that it's from 2004, and might reasonably wonder whether Ringling has improved its treatment of animals. Nope. In October 2006, Robert Tom, a former animal keeper who worked for Ringling for nearly two years (his wife, Margaret, also was employed by the circus) issued a notarized declaration - six pages of hair-raising accounts of animal neglect, abuse and cruelty in and around the big top.

Mr. Tom's experiences echo those of Archele Faye Hundley, a young mother of five, who worked as part of the animal crew. Her lengthy September 2006 notarized declaration, notes: "I quit the circus because the animal abuse was too upsetting. The abuse was not once in awhile, it occurred every day."

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, along with three other not-for-profit animal welfare organizations - The Fund For Animals, Animal Welfare Institute and Animal Protection Institute - are in the midst of litigation, under the Federal Endangered Species Act, against Ringling. The allegations detail the routine abuse and neglect of Asian elephants. The groups are joined in the lawsuit by a former Ringling employee, Tom Rider, who worked as a barn man for the elephants for 21/2 years, and is featured in the Griffith piece.

I digress here briefly for a prediction: Ringling owner Kenneth Feld surely will dispatch someone to respond to this piece - could be an official employee or maybe someone in the guise of a Ringling fan writing a letter to the editor - to dismiss these contentions as the ravings of a misinformed loon.

There will be rosy scenarios offered about their training, about their "conservation efforts" (their Center for Elephant Conservation is little more than a facility to restock the touring units with fresh pachyderms), about how great their animals are treated, etc. There are millions of dollars at stake, and elephants are the prime drawing cards, so when someone is critical of the operation, Mr. Feld and his fellow Ringling panjandrums typically mobilize quickly. And they'll say anything.

Nonetheless, let's just say, for the sake of ludicrous argument, that nothing untoward is visited on elephants in the course of their big top training. They're still forced to travel in those train cars or trucks to perform up to three shows a day and to spend most of their non-performance time anchored by leg chains.

Let me hasten to add that I'm not at all universally opposed to circuses, just those that use animals. There are numerous animal-free circuses - perhaps the most famous is Cirque du Soleil, but the last list I saw featured more than 20 such outfits.

If your family has a hankering to see a circus, go to one of those. But attending a Ringling performance is tantamount to endorsing animal abuse.

Monday, December 10, 2007

This Ziggy Doesn't Play Guitar--But I Bet He Could

One of the many things I like about living where we do--a vaguely rural area with lots of space and a decidedly equestrian bent--is that we share our digs with all sorts of fabulous creatures.

These range from lizards and frogs (one of which I, uh, profiled, in a previous post) to rabbits, opossums, squirrels to all kinds of wildlife in and around our pond, including turtles and fish inside, and assorted fowl outside.

Perhaps my favorite critter around these parts, though, is Ziggy, the fabulous white horse who lives next door. For one thing, as the accompanying picture suggests, he's gorgeous.

But it's more than that. He's a mellow and kind beast, with one of those especially magnetic personalities that only certain animals have. He's the kind of horse you're always happy to see, when you approach the house--or even when you're heading out.

I always stop, roll down the window and call, "Hi Ziggy." I recognize that it means a lot more to me than it does to him, but even if he's in the midst of chowing down, he always looks up and nods to acknowledge the greetings. That's just the kind of horse he is.

Several months ago, Ziggy's human companions placed their house on the market, which was sad news in all kinds of ways--not surprisingly, perhaps, these folks are as nice as Ziggy is, and we'll be very sorry to see them go.

Meanwhile, Ziggy has been spending large hunks of time at their ranch in another part of the state. He's had some problems of late with his feet, and the ground at the ranch is easier on his feet, plus he has a horse friend up there. Hard to begrudge him greater comfort & equine companionship.

But we miss him. This summer, Ziggy was gone for one of the first of his long stretches, and I was in the car with my 4-year-old, Mike, when we drove by his main stomping grounds, and we began wondering aloud where Ziggy was.

"Maybe," Mike suggested, "he's on vacation?"

Out of the mouth of babes, and all. Turns out, Mike's guess was pretty darn accurate. Ziggy came back a few weeks ago, and we all were bonkers with excitement. It was so great to see him, so comforting and wonderful to hear him snorting and whinnying at night.

I went over darn every day to talk with him. Again, the conversations meant a lot more to me than to him; for all I know, he just considered me an odd and lonely man. But, I guess, as someone who loves animals, it's a powerfully pleasurable feeling simply to be in the presence of an animal like that. I relish those visits.

He went back to the ranch recently. Of course, I'm glad he's happier and more comfortable up there, but every time I drive back to our house, I steal a glance next door, hoping Ziggy might have returned. I can hardly wait for our next chat.