There’s a thought-provoking post on America’s leading circus blog, Showbiz David, that dares to voice a concern few circus supporters ever admit to - perhaps because they’re afraid that voicing any criticism of the art form they love will leave them open to allegations of treachery or not being “with it and for it.”
Showbiz begins by telling us how much he enjoyed the elephants in the current Ringling show and how, on leaving, he said as much to one of the animal rights activists picketing the gate.
But then, he begins to question that “them and us” divide between circus fans and protestors.
Showbiz’s doubts ferment while watching a YouTube video of elephants being washed and pedicured backstage at Cole Brothers. You’ll find it easily by Googling Cole Brothers Circus Elephants Pedicure Lane Talburt. And you’ll enjoy it. It’s a sweet video showing elephants being treated kindly. They even have a special moisturiser in their shampoo.
But Showbiz’s memory is snagged by the name of the trainer - a big, genial-looking southern good ol’ boy - and he directs us to a much darker and nastier clip of elephants being trained, or should that be tortured, with electric prods and bull hooks on another of America’s leading circuses. Again, you’ll find it easily by Googling Circus Elephants Abuse Carson & Barnes - if you’re brave enough to watch, that is.
In this covertly obtained clip, our good ol’ boy looks a good deal less genial as he instructs an underling: “Don’t touch ’em, hurt ’em! Make ’em scream - that’s when you know you’ve got their attention.”
The film is more damning than YouTube footage of elephant abuse on British circuses that appeared in recent years, notably leading to the Bobby Roberts conviction. The difference is the context.
In both British cases, the perpetrator was an itinerant European groom, a low-level hired hand who conveniently disappeared before the films came to light. In both instances, the beatings seemed to have no context or purpose. However distressing the footage, it was easy for circus apologists to see it as isolated incidents, the actions of a cruel individual or even a staged set-up by militant activists. The trainers, it is said, would never treat or knowingly allow their animals to be treated like that.
The American film, by contrast, features the circus’ head trainer - a man still operating at the highest level of the industry. The elephants aren’t just standing around being hit for no reason. They are unambiguously in a circus ring in a training barn being taught to perform. What’s more, the trainer isn’t acting angrily or losing control in the heat of the moment. There is a cold logic to what he’s saying.
“I’m not going to touch them on the road in front of a thousand people,” he explains to his underling. As he describes the violence as “important,” his meaning is clear: by showing the elephants the pain he is capable of inflicting, he won’t have to use force on the road. These animals that never forget will remember the pain and just the sight of the bull hook, it is implied, will be enough to make them perform out of the fear of the consequences if they don’t.
Hence, animals on the road, being regularly inspected by vets, not to mention viewed closely each night by the audience, show no sign of the abuse suffered in training at winter quarters.
Faced with this clear evidence of the way elephants are treated by at least one trainer, Showbiz David asks the circus industry a simple question: “We have clear evidence of barbaric abuse to circus elephants as they are being broken in and/or trained to perform circus tricks. Have we, for the other side, equally clear and persuasive evidence of elephants being taught the same tricks in a humane non abusive manner?”
To try and answer that question, I had a quick trawl through YouTube. I drew a blank with jumbos. But it didn’t take me long to chance upon Thomas Chipperfield's Circus Lion Training Diary. There are several episodes and I recommend you take a look. The series shows a couple of young lions being trained, over a period of time, the way we are always assured they are: with gentleness, reward and infinite patience.
Training, then, can be humane and painless - just as common sense has always suggested it can be. After all, no one suggests guide dogs, sheep dogs or police and military dogs are cruelly treated, yet they have all been trained to a sophisticated level; it’s not just circus animals that are taught tricks.
But the Chipperfield video doesn’t cancel out the one mentioned above. Some circus trainers train with pain and abuses happen. The evidence is a mouse-click away from you right now. Showbiz David is right to acknowledge that and to call for those trainers, and the circuses that knowingly employee them, to explain themselves.
Those managements and fans who claim, blindly, that abuse never happens are doing nothing to end it. The only thing they are being with and for is the thing that the critics of the circus accuse it of.
Fifty shades of grey...
For more on the far from black and white subject of animals in the circus, read my interviews with several past and present trainers in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.