Cambrian: Slice of Life

Circus closure leaves me with mixed feelings

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation throws a retirement party for 11 of its performing Asian elephants on Friday, May 6, 2016, in Polk City, Fla.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation throws a retirement party for 11 of its performing Asian elephants on Friday, May 6, 2016, in Polk City, Fla. TNS

I’ve had emotional whiplash ever since I heard in January that the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus would strike its metaphorical tents for the last time later this month.

According to ringling.com, the closure decision “was made as a result of high costs coupled with a decline in ticket sales, making the circus an unsustainable business for the company. Following the transition of the elephants off the circus (in May, 2016), the company saw a decline in ticket sales greater than could have been anticipated.”

In other words, years of criticism, litigation and legislation about using animals as performers had taken their final toll.

As a journalist, I’m supposed to see all sides of a story and keep my own opinions out of it. Sometimes, that detachment training makes it hard to figure out in my own life how I really feel about a complex issue.

I’ll admit it right up front: I always loved going to a circus, even smaller ones, like the Culpepper & Merriweather Combined Circus that came to Cambria in the 1990s.

I also identify with the argument that it can be cruel to use animals as traveling performers, keeping them in cages, away from “a normal life.”

It’s so complicated.

Some people argue that taking wild creatures off their home turf is appalling, putting them in confined environments is mistreatment, and training them to do tricks is criminal.

Others believe that, for certain creatures, “a normal life” means always being on the run from humans who destroy habitats or heartlessly trophy-hunt the animals into extinction.

I ask myself, is it better to leave endangered animals where they are as the species goes extinct? Or is it preferable to move some to a circus, zoo or aquarium and, through breeding programs, help keep the species on the planet?

Expanding the discussion, what if the confined animals had been so ill or injured before they were captured that they likely wouldn’t have survived on their own? Good veterinary care could restore their health, but not always their ability to live in the wild.

Emotional whiplash, for sure.

But for Ringling Bros., the die is cast, the decision made. After final performances May 21, Feld Entertainment will close forever the circus that has entertained so many for 146 years.

Oh, the memories!

I was a wide-eyed little girl, clutching my mom’s hand, the first time I sat in Madison Square Garden and watched the nonstop, three-ring action of Ringling Bros.

We returned many times.

Later, whenever Mom and I talked about those magical afternoons, our conversations nearly always circled back to the circus animals, no matter how amazing the human performers had been.

The magnificent wild creatures — and the ones we saw during our frequent trips to the Bronx and Central Park zoos — inspired me to learn all I could about them.

As my girlfriends were reading about Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, I was entranced by the Osa and Martin Johnson books about their safaris to film animals in the wild in Borneo, Kenya and the Congo.

Mom and I often discussed the books and the passions that had driven the Johnsons. When I was older, she even took me to the Johnsons’ safari museum in Kansas.

Seeing the wildlife in the circus and zoos and talking about the animals with my mom fostered in me a lifelong desire to help preserve any species teetering on the edge of survivability.

Without Ringling Bros., would Mom and I have shared those adventures, those conversations, those connections? Would those memories be as treasured as they are now (especially since her death)? Would I have become the adult I am, sharing her burning determination to help majestic, wild creatures … even if I’m not always 100 percent certain what the best way is to do that?

As I approach my 29th Mother’s Day without my mom, I’m so thankful that she was the smart, funny, environmentally passionate, politically savvy woman she was, and that she loved me enough to share so many adventures and enthusiasms with me, to teach me what truly is important.

What would Mom think about the demise of Ringling Bros.?

I so wish she was here so we could talk about it. Because maybe then I could figure out how I really do feel.

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