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Enough Already – Least Interesting Act in the Circus Needs to Go

by Joe Kennedy

In the late 1970s or early 1980s I first heard of the concept of animal rights from a professor at Hollins College, as it was called then.

To me those two words, “animal rights,” seemed as alien as, say, the words “nuclear donut.”

Time has proven that the notion of animal rights was an idea that made sense to a lot of people.

No longer do we expect to hear it only from a social science professor at a social gathering at a party marked by learned talk and the popping of wine corks.

Animals have never been a reason to attend a circus.  Not for me.  And the sight of elephants chained to stakes outside arenas and tents and swaying neurotically while awaiting their turn in the ring has always appalled me.  The sight of big cats peevishly swatting at their so-called tamer’s whip reminds me not of man’s mastery over beast but a sleeping teenager’s angry response to the appearance in his bedroom door of a parent bearing a list of Saturday chores.

The possibility, however remote, of human bloodshed doesn’t entertain me, either.

This year, for my birthday in March, my daughter Katharine provided three tickets to an April performance of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus at George Mason University Patriot Center in Fairfax.  My son Michael and I joined her for a Sunday afternoon show.  I was eager to see what effect the wild animals would have on me and apprehensive that I might find them indispensible which would mean my farewell to the traditional circus.

From the blast of the band instruments through the opening parade and the ringmaster’s masterful greeting (I’d have bought a CD of his performance if any had been available), the percussion-heavy afternoon was quick, crisp, and awe-inspiring thanks to the superlative skill of the jugglers, tumblers, acrobats, fliers and other ordinary people doing, as they say, extraordinary things.

Then came the elephants, with their ho-hum balancing on stools; really in today’s fast-paced world, would pachyderms on roller skates be too much to expect?  Then came the big cats, sourpussed as ever when their trainer bid them, under threat of a lashing, to lie down, roll over, and get up.

To my surprise this interlude was not completely worthless.  It enabled me to notice that the beasts seemed to be staging a workplace protest.  Their unenthusiastic obedience drew the show nearly to a halt.  Baseball can be a slow game but the drama more than offsets the pace.  A slow circus or one slowed by some of its featured performers is as vexing as a slow computer

As Judy Collins said, send in the clowns.

Why drag those poor beasts out of their habitats anyway? The sheer number of cable TV shows devoted to animals and their environment no doubt has made humans, including children, more familiar with wild things than they have ever been in history.

Cirque de Soleil is on to something and traditional circuses could save themselves a lot of money and grief by quietly dropping their least contented cast members and spotlighting their most remarkable ones—the humans who risk life and limb to entertain us with feats of almost unimaginable skill, feats that place them, whipless, in real danger.

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