There’s a pre-teen vegetarian under my care and a fourth grader who champions the cause of tigers and orangutans in the Sumatran forest by crowd-sourcing money in lieu of (most) gifts during her birthday parties and at Christmastime. Oh and I’m married to a lifelong elephant lover. Let’s just say that my family’s relationship with the circus has been tenuous at best.
Truth be told, we’ve never actually been to a proper circus, because we’ve read the news and we’ve heard the stories about the treatment of animals in the circus. But you know what, the world is awash in grey, and the underlining black and white agendas of those telling the tales should probably have been more of a consideration than they were.
This summer, Ringling Brothers has unveiled their brand new show, Out Of This World, a spectacular production that puts a fresh coat of Technicolor paint on the tried and true circus, and I think my animal-loving family is going to head under the proverbial big top (long gone are the days of actual big tops, unfortunately) for the first time ever when the show rolls through our city. Yes, the elephants have been retired (to a massive piece of land at a Ringling-owned conservatory in Florida) but there’s still the glitz of lions and the glamour of tigers, and maybe that right there is a non-starter for you like it was for us for so many years, but here’s how we are now seeing things.
I believe there’s a net positive to the exotic animals in the circus (I’d say the same is also true for well-run zoos), namely because without exposure to such creatures one’s capacity to care about their plight in their native homeland(s) is significantly reduced. I think back to ‘Shark Lady’ Eugenie Clark as a prime example of the importance of well-cared-for animals in captivity. She’d likely never have developed a love for marine life if not for the aquarium she visited frequently as a child many years ago.
A potential lack of empathy for big cats and other threatened animals is not a happy outcome, especially when you consider that the wild animals in the Ringling Brothers circus are not, technically speaking, wild at all. The lions and tigers of this circus have not been plucked from Africa or Asia but instead are the ninth and eleventh generations breed by in captivity by lion trainer Alexander Lacey and his family. If they weren’t in the circus these lions and tigers would not exist and there’d be fewer lions and tigers in the world. See, this issue isn’t nearly as black and white as I once thought it was.
To encounter these massive animals up close, off stage, as I was fortunate enough to do recently at the Feld Entertainment facility in Bradenton, Florida, is to see oversized domestic cats that clearly adore their trainer and appear playful and excited to show off whenever a stranger (or an arena full of strangers) is around.
Of course, if the animals were not being treated well and cared for meticulously by the circus then this wouldn’t be acceptable but the Ringling Brothers lions and tigers seem to be genuinely loved and showered with affection as if they were darling human children of the lion trainer, who is on record as stating that his life happily revolves around his animals.
At the end of the day, here’s the crux of the change of heart for us: if one of Lacey’s animals doesn’t want to perform on a given night, they don’t. It’s a simple as that. Some nights there may be 6 tigers on stage, 4 the next, while another performance could feature 8 tigers; this is because Lacey only performs with animals that want to perform. Frankly, I never imagined hearing that from any circus but it’s a cut and dry animal welfare policy at Ringling Brothers.
With the animal issue moved to the side, we all can sit back and enjoy how marvelously breathtaking the brand new, intergalactic, on-ice Out Of This World circus is, with its start to finish narrative arc (a first for a Ringling circus), ice skating break-dancers, unicycle basketball players (also on ice), dangling contortionists, motorcycle daredevils, tight-rope walkers, a live band, hilarious not-at-all-scary clowns, and of course, those gorgeous lions and tigers.
Out Of This World is on tour now. Find our when the show visits your city on the Ringling Brothers website.
Photos courtesy of the author