Just to be sure, I checked a handful of dictionaries, and not one of them defines “entertainment” as “the act of hurting an animal.”
That’s why, when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in town this summer, my family followed our longstanding tradition and didn’t go near “The Cruelest Show on Earth.” We steered clear of SeaWorld for the same reason when we visited Florida. And I couldn’t tell you the last time we went to a zoo.
Maybe these establishments are still in business because people are duped by shiny wrapping and pricey gewgaws.
Take Ringling. After years of stonewalling, the circus finally bowed to pressure from the public, PETA and other animal rights groups and took the beaten-down elephants off the road. You’d think the next reasonable step would be to do the same for the lions, tigers and other animals who are still being exploited, right?
Wrong. Compassion isn’t part of Ringling’s business model.
Instead of sending the animals to reputable sanctuaries—where they could get a taste of the natural life they’ve long been denied—as opposed to its Florida breeding and training compound where the elephants continue to live in chains—Ringling followed the lead of P.T. Barnum himself. The circus rejiggered its show, gave it a new name, and, like a snake-oil huckster, is trying to peddle it as something different.
But it’s not. It’s business as usual.
In the wild, lions live in large prides, and tigers generally keep to themselves. Both are apex predators at the top of the food chain, but Ringling hauls them around in cages so small that they can barely take a step in any direction—they’re forced to eat, drink, sleep and defecate all in the same small area. Once they reach a venue, usually after days of stressful travel, they are sometimes housed outside in the oppressive heat and merciless sun. Jammed together with no way to avoid conflict, altercations and injuries routinely occur.
Usually, the big cats’ only reprieve from extreme confinement is the few minutes during which they’re forced to perform—while being threatened with whips or sticks that at least one trainer euphemistically calls “guiders.” They learn fast that they’d better perform on cue.
In whose twisted mindset are fear and intimidation considered “entertainment”?
And SeaWorld’s sea circus is no different. In the face of mounting public criticism, a lengthy PETA campaign and a ruling by the California Coastal Commission that banned orca breeding, the park begrudgingly stopped churning out more babies. While these magnificent animals will no longer be born into a life of suffering and deprivation, nothing has changed for those who are still being held captive at SeaWorld’s three parks. They could be stuck in barren concrete tanks for decades to come.
Orcas in the wild spend their lives with their families, swimming wherever they please in the open ocean, sometimes up to 100 miles a day. They suffer both physically and psychologically in captivity, swimming listlessly in circles and destroying their teeth by gnawing on the concrete walls of tanks.
But rather than building a coastal sanctuary for these intelligent, social beings, SeaWorld spent millions of dollars on a rollercoaster—whose reverberations undoubtedly disturb the captive animals—in a desperate attempt to resuscitate its bottom line and lure back visitors who, fed up with the park’s history of abuse, have stayed away in droves.
And don’t get me started on the Miami Seaquarium, where an orca named Lolita has languished in the smallest orca tank in North America for nearly 50 years, most of that time alone and with no protection from the scorching South Florida sun.
My family just doesn’t see the fun in watching people whip lions and tigers or force orcas to leap in the air for a handful of fish.
And here’s why we want no part of zoos: Seeing frustrated, depressed animals reduced to a life behind bars is heartbreaking. They’re shells of who they’re supposed to be. The Washington Post recently ran a story about an elephant at the National Zoo who had to be fitted with special shoes because she suffers from painful arthritis and cracked toenails. But what the story didn’t say was that being forced to live on concrete or hard-packed dirt is often the cause of those very conditions.
So, what do we do for fun?
We go to IMAX theaters to see animals “jump off” the screen right in front of our eyes. We bought tickets to Cirque du Soleil, which was spectacular and animal-free. When we were in Florida, we swam with fish and turtles—in their home, on their terms—at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We watched manatees in their natural habitat from the free viewing platform at the Big Bend Power Station near Tampa.
There are plenty of other options for entertainment that your family will find enjoyable, and none of them involve hurting animals. Climb into a kayak or canoe, find a pond and watch the fish feed at sunrise or dusk, or go birdwatching, hiking or snorkeling.
Just, please, don’t buy a ticket to any circus, theme park or other attraction that exploits animals. That would be an endorsement of the abuse.
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Photo credit: Getty Images