Circus reveals more about human animal than circus animal

Gene Bernofsky photo; World Wide Film Expedition.org

Much has been written about circus animal exploitation, and those who care to know, do know. We know about the trauma of capture and separation. The abusive training. The extreme confinement in trailers, cages, and chains–lives so impoverished that animals lose their minds. And the fruit of that suffering: brief minutes in the ring where defeated animals perform unnatural, coerced acts for cheering throngs. We know about the suffering when things go as planned, and the suffering when things go awry.

But this piece is about the other animal–the one who wields the whip and bullhook. The animal who clutches kids with one hand and circus tickets with the other. The animal who profits off the misery of “lesser” beings in the name of charity. In short, the animal who determines the fate of all others.

Welcome to the Shrine Circus

The Shrine Circus comes to town quietly. Promotional signs (a pink elephant wearing a fez) are posted here and there, but actual advertising is low-key and short-lived.

Gene Bernofsky photo; World Wide Film Expedition.org

Because Shriners have access to school systems in a long-standing tradition, free kids’ tickets are distributed by the thousands; adults then purchase their own. And by the thousands they come to the University of Montana field house–hoards of kids and their families from a wide radius around Missoula.

In the past, one brave young woman made it her business to know when the Shrine Circus would make its run; she’d be there alone, if need be, to hold a “boycott animal circuses” sign. This year, with organizational effort, 24 different individuals–ages six to 60 and beyond–showed up over the course of five performances; as many as 16 were present for two shows.

Gene Bernofsky photo; WWFE.org

Our signs were non-confrontational: “Have a (heart) for circus animals.” “Cruelty isn’t entertainment…have compassion.” “Sad animals.” “I’d rather die free than live as a slave.” “For their sake, make this your last animal circus.” “Circus: yes! Animal circus: No!” “Animals don’t enjoy circuses.” “Charity is no excuse for animal abuse.” One woman read this last sign, proclaimed, “I want you to know that I don’t agree” and walked away.

Circus-goers: “Don’t challenge my assumptions”

A woman approached with an almost tearfully-delivered story about a child who was burned from head to foot, accrued hospital costs of a million dollars, was treated and saved at a Shriners hospital. That’s awesome, we told her, but the circus she was attending didn’t raise money for any hospital (and no claims were made that it did). According to the poster, “Proceeds benefit the Western Montana Shrine Club. Contributions are not deductible as charitable donations.” And according to a New York Times investigative piece from 2005, 98% of Shriners hospitals’ operating income comes from endowments.

Still, she insisted that this child was alive because of the hospital and how could we protest that?!? (She knew what she knew and would not be swayed by the facts.) We aren’t opposed to circuses, we clarified–just animals in the circus. But no, she continued, this was the best way to raise money for the hospital. Besides, she didn’t want to be bothered by constant phone calls asking for donations when she could just attend the circus!

We observed that the vast majority of circus-goers prefer the “drive-by” method of insult delivery–shooting zingers and walking off. At the Saturday afternoon performance, when mobs of people were backed up and moving at snail’s pace past our demonstration line, scarcely a word was offered. There was no quick escape.

Not that any of us expected to feel the love. “Are you people serious?” “Get a life!” “You’re crazy, the animals live better than I do!” “Dirty hippies!”  One dad, holding his two-year-old, gave us the finger behind the child’s back while other kids looked on. A mom loudly instructed, “They don’t have jobs so they protest instead.” One male, puffing a cigarette on the tobacco-free campus, took great delight in telling us about the double burger he had just eaten…as if anyone cared.

We smiled and tried to take the high road, most of us understanding that this was the place not for confrontation or displays of ego, but to plant the seed of doubt about the treatment of circus animals. Should it take root, this seed might grow and blossom into compassion and a sense of justice–if not in the parent, perhaps in the child.

And the children provided the most poignant moments. Those old enough to read the signs did so, some mouthing the words to themselves, some methodically moving along our line to read each one, sometimes with knitted brows, sometimes struggling to fully comprehend. I would hazard to guess that, for most, this was a new idea: Circus animals aren’t willing participants. Circus animals don’t have fun.

Two mothers actually covered their children’s eyes, one telling her daughter, “Don’t look, you’ll feel bad,” the other verbally laying into her son when he looked anyhow.  “Keep walking, Brittany,” another mom admonished her curious daughter–urgency in her voice. Brittany turned away and kept walking.

But there were also the heart-warming few. One mom slowly read each sign to her questioning child. Another kneeled down to explain, “These people disagree with how the animals are treated in the circus, and they have a right to stand here and say so.” A woman approached us to express her sincere confusion; she still planned to attend, she said, but would research the issue afterwards. We were happy to provide her with a “Break the Chain” flyer from Animal Defenders International. I’m betting she won’t return next year.

A young dad read I’d rather die free than live as a slave and agreed with an emphatic “True THAT!” He read every sign–told us he once saw an elephant being hit with a bullhook. “But I’m only one person,” he said as he walked toward the entrance. “And you’re only…” he trailed off, looking back at our line of 16, a stark contrast to the hundreds pouring into the Adams Center.

Intimidation. Name-calling. A racial insult.

Gene Bernofsky photo; WWFE.org

A couple of clowns decided to harass us.  One got in our faces and didn’t back off. It had a nightmarish, Invasion of the Clown Car Body-Snatchers quality to it. We peacefully stood our ground until she finally took her bobble eyelashes and aqua ‘fro and sauntered off. A “constable” approached the young woman near me–an Asian-American college student exercising her First Amendment right on her own campus. “What’s wrong with using animals?” the constable demanded. She politely responded, adding, “Elephants don’t even belong here! They belong in Africa…and Asia.” Looking her squarely in the face, he replied, “A lot of things ought to go back to Africa and Asia.” None of us saw that coming, but she handled it with poise and dignity, informing him that his remark was offensive and asking him to leave–repeatedly.

A Shriner in a “Motor Patrol” jacket accosted us with a sneering, “I suppose you’re for Obama, too. I suppose you’re pro-Muslim!” (An ironic “insult,” given the Shriners’ history as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. The first Shrine temple ever established was the Mecca Temple.) His rant ended with “…kill ‘em all” but by then we had tuned him out and didn’t know to whom or what he referred. Another Shriner treated us to a bitter diatribe, his coup de gras, “What a bunch of losers!” So much for benevolence. But then there was the Shriner who gave us two thumbs-up–hands held close against his torso to avoid detection.

The Western Montana Shrine Club contracts with the Jordan World Circus, an outfit that has not renewed its U.S. Department of Agriculture exhibitor’s license (whether due to violations or not is unclear). Jordan now leases its animals from other exhibitors, most with their own USDA violations. Jordan circled the wagons–or semi-trailers–behind the Adams Center for its stint in Missoula, the animals carefully hidden from view. Only one trailer was open and visible; it held a cage and the cage held a dog.

Photo lightened to reveal dog

Imagine spending your life in a barren cage inside a trailer, standing in your own waste. Imagine being chained in concrete parking lots in one town after another. This comes only after often-abusive training sessions with bullhooks and whips, restraints and prods. Imagine being uncaged and unchained just long enough to perform meaningless, demeaning stunts you learned through intimidation and pain.

Imagine knowing that 24 people came to your defense, but 24,000 came for your show.

The animal whose hand brandishes the whip, whose hand signs the circus contract, whose hand clutches the tickets and covers the children’s eyes…is the same animal whose hand holds the sign revealing the truth about the tragic lives of circus animals.

“Even if you are a minority of one,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “the truth is the truth.”
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Photo credits (all but dog): Gene Bernofsky, World Wide Film Expedition

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