Might Ringling’s retiring of elephants signal Americans’ retiring sense of entitlement to view wildlife?

Soon to be retired – after more than 150 years in service of elephants in the circus. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

On my office door is a picture of a dolphin at the Georgia Aquarium with a little quote bubble coming from his mouth that reads, “You are not entitled to see me.” This liberation sentiment, expressed on behalf of all captive animals on public display, is now coming true for some elephants. Ringling Brothers Circus earlier this month said elephants will no longer be forced to perform and can retire in three years.

As someone who has spent the last two decades in the animal rights movement and the last decade researching American discourses on nonhuman animals, I am pleased to see the discourse beginning to shift. After years of society limiting the discussion to welfare reforms for captive wild animals, now more people are talking about liberation as a needed solution.

Indeed, this announcement earlier this month by the nation’s largest circus is a major milestone in the animal rights movement. It shows that animal-use industries are starting to listen – potentially to activists, definitely to the public, and perhaps to the elephants themselves.

Customer base

Animal activists in cities across America have trailed the circus consistently for decades. They’ve greeted them and their customers with signs and disturbing videos exposing the pathetic life (and behind-the-scenes negative training) of animals used in circuses. Activists have also pointed customers to websites like Peta’s program created to expose cruel treatment of animals.

Changing of the guard: polls reflect changing attitudes toward captive animals. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

While the captivity industry may not be willing to listen to activists, who are likely perceived as an annoying deterrent to business, they have to listen to the public (their customer base), who perhaps has been listening to activists. The public wants to be entertained, but doesn’t find joy in seeing animals who are miserable performing tricks.

There are signs that there has been a general shift in public sentiment, with people becoming less comfortable with certain animal species used for entertainment. Circus animal acts have been banned (in whole or part) in many countries and cities globally, including 49 U.S. cities, according to a growing list published by Animal Defenders International. And even beyond just opposing performance acts, the public is showing increasing support for ending elephant exhibits at zoos. For example, a survey from 2013 in Seattle, found that over 60% of respondents favored retiring elephants from the local zoo to a sanctuary, with even higher support among young people. Many zoos have closed their elephant exhibits.

Concern extends to marine mammals too; advocacy group Whale and Dolphin Conservation last year reported that 50% of Americans polled opposed keeping orcas in confinement, an 11% increase from just two years ago. In fact, SeaWorld attendance and stocks have declined recently in large part due to animal activism on behalf of whales. And last year, San Francisco and Malibu, California issued official statements recognizing the rights of dolphins to remain free from captivity.

What took so long?

When I was a kid in Florida in the 1970s, I went to Ringling Brothers circus, the local zoo, and SeaWorld. Like most of us, I love animals, so I wanted to see them, pet them, and, in the case of elephants at Lion Country Safari park, even take a ride on them.

As I’ve matured and educated myself about the lives and needs of fellow animals, I now only support sanctuaries instead of profit-oriented animal captivity and entertainment venues. I’ve realized that to really show love for anyone, you have to respect them enough to consider what they want and put their major interests before your minor ones (to paraphrase Peter Singer from Animal Liberation).

That’s what we are beginning to do for elephants in the 21st century. As some circuses and zoos start to transfer them to sanctuaries, it will hopefully signal a tipping point for other entertainment venues to follow.

The circus elephants are in town: Boston, 1939. Boston Public Library, CC BY-NC-SA

Changes in attitudes are due to animal activists posing legal challenges to circuses and aquariums, to journalists’ investigations and filmmakers’ documentaries, to former employees’ undercover footage of mistreatment, and to scientists’ research showing how animals do not thrive in captivity.

With this information, the public can no longer pretend that animals in aquatic tanks and circus rings, who may seem joyous and cooperative amongst the festive music and comic dialogue, are willing performers. We know they have very little choice in whether they perform or any other aspect of their unnatural lives in captivity. Recent documentaries that speak on behalf of animals, such as An Apology for Elephants, The Cove, and Blackfish, play a vital role in this public education.

I just wonder why Disney’s film Dumbo didn’t do the trick almost 75 years ago, as it certainly highlighted circus cruelty and garnered sympathy for the elephant’s plight. I wonder the same thing for why Bambi hasn’t ended hunting, 101 Dalmations hasn’t ended fur, and Charlotte’s Web and Babe haven’t ended the farming of animals for food.

A reflection on culture

We can know from childhood that something is unkind but still be complicit with it as adults, perhaps due to the inertia of tradition. We may hold the anthropocentric worldview that we humans are above mere ‘animals,’ and that our interests and needs take priority, despite the fact that it is largely only economic interests, not needs, that perpetuate the continued exploitation of other animals.

Yet the way we treat other animals reflects our own identity. If we talk about our culture’s respect for freedom and justice, we can’t sustain that self-image while being an oppressor of other animals, imprisoning or enslaving them – if we are willing to admit to playing this role.

Documentaries such as Blackfish about a Sea World orca have shaped public opinion on captive animals. Magnolia Pictures

That’s why the animal rights movement’s discourse is disruptive: it forces us to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that our unjust treatment of other animals, who we know are fellow sentient beings, is inconsistent with our perception of ourselves as humane and just.

So I’m hoping this important announcement – that the “greatest show on earth” is going elephant-free after displaying members of the iconic and beloved species for almost 150 years – will be the start of further improvements toward us becoming a truly just society. That would be a society where we respect wild animals enough to let them be wild (“free-living” is a more apt term), and no longer tame or domesticate them to serve us.

Circuses could transition away from using any nonhuman animal species and toward employing only those performers who can willingly give consent, as Cirque du Soleil does with humans. We could also embrace the 21st century as the era to move the public discourse beyond improved animal welfare standards in captivity. Instead, we should discuss how to respect the rights and independence of other animals across all facets of our society – in agriculture, scientific testing, fashion, entertainment, and sport.

Moving away from that old-school circus mentality of us viewing them as the exotic other, we could now begin to see fellow animals as we see ourselves: unique individuals entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.