The champagne must be pflowing freely at PETA. Let’s hope they’re happy now that the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus has decided to pull down the big top once and for all. The show is over. Done. Kaput. Of course, there are many reasons why the circus has decided to close its doors this month – operating costs are up, attendance is down, changes in the American family – but the most powerful push to dim the lights of the circus assuredly came from animal rights activists. And while PETA and their minions weren’t the only reason for the demise of this slice of Americana, they certainly had a big hand in it – with all five fingers.
For one hundred and forty-six years the circus has been an iconic part of American culture. With its outlandish costumes, death-defying acrobatic tricks and ringmasters in top hats, the circus was the go-to place to bring your children and grandchildren even before they could hold a cone of cotton candy.
According to the Associated Press, here’s how it all began:
Phineas Taylor Barnum made a traveling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits from their home base in Wisconsin. Eventually, they merged and the modern circus was born. The sprawling troupes traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals.
Human oddities ran their course –no more barking for the Yak woman, as Cousin Eddie articulates in Christmas Vacation – and so animals became a crucial part of the circus experience: roaring lions, funny dogs, and of course, those great, big elephants. Take out the animals, and all you have are people dressed in wild costumes performing a high wire act. So once the animal rights people pressured the circus to stop using circus elephants the handwriting was on the circus tent.
In 1967, Feld Entertainment bought the Ringling Circus, and it’s been an uphill battle ever since, with the elephant controversy smack in the middle of it. “Attendance has been dropping for ten years, said Juliette Feld, but when the elephants left, there was a “dramatic drop” in ticket sales. Paradoxically, while many said they didn’t want big animals to perform in circuses, many others refused to attend a circus without them,” Feld told the AP.
One could rightly argue, what’s a circus without an elephant? It’s like a jelly sandwich without the peanut butter – it’s certainly sweet, but something indisputably is missing. It’s like a lion in the cage without the tamer. A swing without the Acrobat. A ringmaster sans the top hat. No elephants and now no circus. Surprise. Surprise.
Look, I get it. No one wants to see animals mistreated. As the great Mahatma Gandhi once said, ““The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I love dogs, would never aim a rifle at Bambi. I get it. I get it.
But I can’t help being sad that my grandchildren will never experience The Greatest Show on Earth. They will never be a part of a quintessential slice of American culture that provided an afternoon of entertainment unlike any other.
So hip, hip, hooray to the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They certainly tried to have the last word when they wrote on their website, “As of May, the saddest show on earth for wild animals will end.”
But perhaps the last word rightfully belongs to P.T. Barnum who said, “To me, there is no picture so beautiful as smiling, bright-eyed, happy children; no music so sweet as their clear and ringing laughter.”
It seems that as we charge forward in the 21st Century without the circus, parents will have to find another way to garner the precious laughter of their children. Guess it’s time to buy the kiddies those expensive tickets for Disney World.
See you in line.
A widely published columnist, Leesa previously worked in the broadcast news industry as a television news anchor, reporter, and producer at NBC, CBS and Fox affiliates in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC.She is the author of "Free At Last: A Life-Changing Journey through the Gospel of Luke."
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