Circus of Death

Everybody loves a clown.
Everybody loves a clown.
When I was a kid the highlight of my fall was to go to the circus. The big one, Barnum and Bailey. There you could see the clowns clowning, the acrobats acrobatting and the elephants elephanting. The lion and tiger tamers would thrill and scare you and the announcer made it all seem larger than life. Plus there was popcorn, cotton candy and all the glorious smells. Circuses were rank with musk and I loved it. As time passed I grew away from the circus and went on to other entertainments. Music, theater, arts, and so on. If I did think of the circus I did so fondly. Like a half remembered kiss. When I got older I would occasionally hear about people who wanted to ban circuses, or at least the animal acts. That struck me as silly at the time. Who wants to ban a kiss or a happy memory? People who were less self absorbed than me it turns out.

The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) recently updated its website to specifically deal with the way circus animals, especially elephants, are treated. More importantly, to the human-centric among you, how those treatments can lead to human deaths.

The Animals

Although the issues regarding circus cruelty have gained much-needed attention in recent years, circus animals still suffer from lives of confinement, social deprivation and violent methods of training.

In many circuses, animals are trained through the use of intimidation and physical abuse. Former circus employees have reported seeing animals beaten, whipped and denied food and water, all to force them to learn their routines. Animals are taught that not obeying the trainer will result in physical abuse. In the United States, no government agency monitors animal training sessions.

Traveling from town to town is also inherently stressful for circus animals—they are separated from their social groups and intensively confined or chained for extended periods of time with no access to food, water, and veterinary care. It’s no surprise that many animals suffer psychological effects. Swaying back and forth, head-bobbing and pacing are just some of the stereotypical behaviors associated with mental distress displayed by animals in the circus.

Public Safety Concerns

Animals in circuses are also a threat to public safety. There have been hundreds of incidents involving circus animals attacking and escaping—often resulting in property damage, injuries and death.

Furthermore there is a risk of disease. Some elephants used in circuses have been found to carry a human strain of tuberculosis, which can be easily passed on to humans.

ASPCA in Action

In the year 2000, the ASPCA—along with The Fund for Animals, Born Free USA and the Animal Welfare Institute—filed a federal lawsuit against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The lawsuit contended that the circus’s treatment of its Asian elephants violates the federal Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, on December 30, 2009, the case was decided on behalf of the defense (Ringling’s owners, Feld Entertainment) based on lack of standing of the plaintiffs.

On March 5, 2015, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it will phase out the show’s elephants from its performances by 2018. This is a tremendous victory for the elephants of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, as well as for everyone who fought for this change, including many advocates and lawmakers in cities around the country. We continue to oppose using elephants or any wild or exotic animals in circuses, carnivals and other traveling animal shows because of resulting stress and cruelty, as well as inevitable physical, social and psychological deprivations.

The nice people at Do Something have put together a well researched and frightening top 11 list pertaining to circus animals. Click on the link to see all their source documents.

  • Circus animals have the right to be protected and treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act.
  • Tigers naturally fear fire, but they are still forced to jump through fire hoops in some circuses and have been burned while doing so.
  • Circuses are repeatedly cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Animal Welfare Act for trailers that have splintering wood and sharp, protruding metal pieces near animals’ cages.
  • Trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks and other painful tools of the trade to force animals to perform.
  • In more than 35 dangerous incidents since 2000, elephants have bolted from circuses, run amok through streets, crashed into buildings, attacked members of the public, and killed and injured handlers.
  • Every major circus that uses animals has been cited for violating the minimal standards of care set by the United States Animal Welfare (AWA).
  • 11 months a year they travel over long distances in box cars with no climate control; sleeping, eating, and defecating in the same cage.
  • Virtually 96% of a circus animal’s life is spent in chains or cages.
  • Since 1990, there have been more than 123 documented attacks on humans by captive large cats in the United States, 13 of which resulted in fatal injuries.
  • During the off-season, animals used in circuses may be housed in small traveling crates. Such confinement has harmful psychological effects on them. These effects are often indicated by unnatural behavior such as repeated swaying, and pacing.
  • Lack of exercise and long hours standing on hard surfaces are major contributors to foot infections and arthritis, the leading causes of death among captive elephants.

Keep in mind that they are only working from documented accounts. What happens behind the scenes that doesn’t require police intervention is unknown. But the pattern is disturbing nonetheless.

Okay, you say, but progress is being made. The elephants are being phased out and films go above and beyond the call of duty to protect our friends in the animal kingdom.

Eh, not so much.

While elephants are being phased out of one circus there are others who will still use them. Plus exotic cats and other animals are barely discussed. And, sadly, that whole film safety thing is looking more and more like a sham.

Ryan Gorman, at the Daily Mail (UK), tells a scary tale.

The American Humane Association (AHA) is charged with protecting animals during movie shoots, but a staggering new report out claims it puts more effort into covering up animal harm than preventing it.

Some of the biggest-name productions in Hollywood have seen animals die on-set or suffer near-death experiences but still received the ubiquitous AHA stamp of approval, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Some of the more egregious incidents include dozens of marine animals washing ashore during the filming of a Pirates Of The Caribbean film, the deaths of 27 animals during the filming of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and four horses dying during filming for HBO’s Luck.

Not even the tiger star of Life Of Pi, who almost drowned, was safe from being covered up.

The tiger, known in the film as Richard Parker, was tasked with swimming to the side during a scene and became disoriented. A trainer had to lasso him with a rope and pull him to safety.

In an email obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, AHA monitor Gina Johnson allegedly wrote to a colleague: ‘I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION IT TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE! I have downplayed the f*** out of it.’

The award-winning box office smash still received the ‘No Animals Were Harmed’ credit familiar to all moviegoers.

Several dozen marine animals, including fish and squid, washed ashore during the filming of Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.

They died after uncontrolled explosions were set off in the water for special effects, a rep from the AHA present during filming told The Hollywood Reporter.

The AHA declined to comment regarding the allegation.

The more than two dozen animals that fell victim to The Hobbit included sheep and goats that died from dehydration, exhaustion or drowning during a filming hiatus.

The AHA cobbled together the following certification for the big-budget blockbuster saying it ‘monitored all of the significant animal action. No animals were harmed during such action.’

During the filming of Failure To Launch a squirrel was somehow crushed to death by the film crew.

These allegations are seen as proof that the animal safety watchdog has a relaxed relationship with the film industry.

A former LA animal protection officer was quoted as saying: ‘It’s fascinating and ironic: From being the protectors of animals they’ve become complicit to animal cruelty.’

The now-retired agent said production staff at one film even once ‘told animal control to f*** themselves’ after agents were sent to investigate the deaths of two horses.

Even with the ability to issue citations and arrest production staff for harming animals, the crew of HBO’s horse racing drama Luck escaped unscathed despite four horses dying during production.

The AHA half-heartedly admitted that Ms Johnson’s objectivity might have been compromised because of her relationship with a Life Of Pi movie executive.

But the former animal control officer said: ‘This is worse than doing nothing. This is like a cop not just ignoring a crime but helping cover it up.’

An unnamed AHA employee agreed, saying ‘the moral compass of the entire place is off the hook’.

The Hollywood Reporter article, cited above, written by Gary Baum, paints an even bleaker picture.

Once a distinctly outsider entity, which had to fight for its right to independently monitor productions in the first place, today the AHA has transformed itself into an entrenched industry insider. The organization undeniably has improved the care and safety of animals used in Hollywood. But interviews with six AHA employees and an extensive review of internal AHA documents, including incident logs, emails, meeting minutes, audit assessments and more, strongly suggest that the organization’s fundamental work — protecting animals through credibly neutral on-set oversight — today is inadequate.

These employees allege, and available AHA internal evidence supports their claims, that the organization distorts its film ratings, downplays or fails to publicly acknowledge harmful incidents and sometimes doesn’t seriously pursue investigations. The AHA staffers agreed to speak because they say they have lost hope in the potential for meaningful reform unless outside pressure is brought to bear. (They all have insisted on maintaining their anonymity for fear of retribution.)
More recently, the organization — whose other nationwide animal efforts range from rescue and shelter services following large-scale disasters to a cage-free certification program for meat, poultry, egg and dairy producers — has faced conflicts of interest stemming from its desire to be a part of the industry it’s meant to regulate.

Exhibit A: On Oct. 1, 2011, the Hallmark Channel premiered Love’s Everlasting Courage, a TV movie about pioneer-era America that was monitored by the AHA. That same evening, the AHA presented its inaugural Hero Dog Awards, attended by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Betty White and Hayden Panettiere, at the Beverly Hilton. Hallmark subsequently broadcast the Hero Dog Awards gala, just as it’s done each year since. It was a natural fit — after all, the network’s head, Crown Media CEO Bill Abbott, sat on the AHA’s Film & TV Unit advisory board (he would join the AHA’s full national board just after the 2011 Hero Dog Awards event).

The symbiotic relationship between the two organizations is important in light of an incident that occurred June 9, 2010, during the filming of Courage. That day, a horse named Glass — known for his gentle demeanor, one blue eye and a distinctive white blaze of mane set against a shimmering black coat — was fatally injured when a “runaway” wagon really did lose control and the carriage’s crossbar broke (think of a pencil snapping), impaling the animal’s left hindquarter. “He then went into shock from extreme blood loss and the vet decided it would be more humane to euthanize him than allow him to suffer,” according to an internal AHA report.

If you have the time, and a strong stomach, please read Gary’s article in its entirety. It is a lengthy, and documented, listing of nightmare after nightmare. Including, my favorite, setting off explosives in a marine environment just so Johnny Depp could look cool. Yes, that little bit of whimsy killed thousands of fish and squids.

All for no reason.

The thing of it is people like seeing animals perform. God knows they made this kid happy. But selling popcorn and cotton candy shouldn’t require that animals be tortured.

Think of if this way, you don’t have to stab your pet every day to house train it. There are better ways. And, yes, caring for animals properly can be expensive. So be it. Being cheap doesn’t justify sadism.

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