“We have circuses in Colorado?” That is a question I am often asked, and the answer is yes, we do. Each year there are around 40 performances throughout the state at coliseums, event centers and county fairs.
Once the phrase, “The circus is coming, the circus is coming,” excited people in towns and cities across America who wanted to see tigers jumping through flaming hoops, elephants balancing atop balls, and lion tamers putting their heads in a lion’s mouth, but that was the circus of yesterday. Today the curtain has been pulled back and we know these seemingly magical acts come at the cost of animal cruelty. The stark reality is circus animals only perform because they have been conditioned to do so, not through the use of rewards, but rather by punishment.
Bullhooks, which look similar to fireplace pokers, are used to control elephants by either hooking them behind a leg or ear to force them move forward, poking them in the chest to move backward, or jabbing them under the arm so they will stand unnaturally on their hind legs. Other circus animals endure “training” through whips, chains or even the shock from a taser. Animals soon learn that if they don’t perform as expected there will be consequences.
By some estimates circus animals spend as much as 90% of their lives confined in cages or trailers, only being let out for performances. Unable to exercise or exhibit behaviors that are natural in the wild, circus animals become depressed, something that has been documented by animal ethologists, and depression can lead to illness, not to mention a hopeless existence. Elephants in particular have it rough. When not performing they may be forced to give rides on backs that were not evolved to carry weight.
Compelled to perform in unnatural positions, circus animals can develop medical conditions they would not endure in the wild such as chronic pain and arthritis. Yet, because “the show must go on,” these animals are often seen limping, dragging their feet, or what could only be described as wincing from pain. And as most circuses do not have a veterinarian, routine veterinary care is often limited or non-existent.
Considered to be the fourth most intelligent animals on earth, elephants share the human emotions of joy, sadness and fear and can experience anger as well. During a circus performance in Hawaii, a female elephant named Tyke reached her breaking point. Killing her trainer and injuring a dozen spectators, she escaped into the streets of Honolulu, where police had to unload over 80 rounds of ammunition to stop the rampage. Not surprisingly that also ended Tyke’s life.
Circus animals aren’t the only ones that suffer. Science has shown us that people can become desensitized to cruelty through watching it and the problem is made worse when that cruelty is disguised as entertainment that can make children less sympathetic to the suffering of others, both animal and human.
Fortunately, Sen. Joann Ginal has introduced legislation that would prohibit exotic animal performances. Under SB20-125, Titled the Traveling Exotic Animal Safety Protection Act, or TEASPA, wild animals such as elephants, lions, or tigers would no longer be allowed to perform in circuses, and in the case of elephants, they could no longer be used to give rides.
The proposed law doesn’t prohibit circuses, only circus performances involving exotic animals like those mentioned earlier. It would not apply to domestic livestock used in stock shows or rodeos, nor affect accredited institutions that house wild animals such as the Denver Zoo or The Wild Animal Sanctuary.
The circus of our parents' day has now passed. Circuses do not need exotic animals to survive. One need look no further than the success of Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Legacy, or the Circus Roncalli in Germany, which uses holographic projections of exotic animals to the delight and amazement of its audiences.
Colorado was recently recognized as third-best state when it comes to animal-protection laws. We should be proud of this recognition and work toward becoming No. 1. Ending cruel and unnecessary circus animal performances would lift us one more rung toward the top spot.
Roland Halpern is executive director of Colorado Voters for Animals, a nonprofit advocacy organization whose mission is to identify and help elect animal-friendly candidates and work with lawmakers to pass sensible animal protection laws.