The Successful Crusade to Protect Circus Elephants

Portland Press Herld Maine Voices: Elephants won’t forget that a long crusade on their behalf began here
Maine House of Representatives was the nation’s first to oppose a barbaric and outdated circus practice.

By Robert Fisk, Jr.
Special to Portland Press Herald
Published April 30, 2016 

FALMOUTH — On Sunday in Providence, Rhode Island, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is scheduled to have its last performance using elephants. The 146-year-old tradition, which has been deeply ingrained in our culture, will end.

The past three decades have been a tumultuous time for Feld Entertainment, the parent company for Ringling circuses, as the public learned how circus elephants are trained, kept, used and disposed of. The plight of these great creatures grew into a major issue within the animal protection movement.

As columnist Alex Beam recently wrote in The Boston Globe: “In 1955, Ringling paraded 50 elephants down Manhattan’s Second Avenue on their way to Madison Square Garden. A Ringling circus now has only five elephants, and they often steal into cities at nighttime to avoid animal rights protesters.”

Cruelty to circus elephants involves their submission to painful bullhooks and being chained at the ankle much of their lives, forced and beaten to learn unnatural acts, and eventually sold off to roadside exhibitors when no longer useful – in total, a miserable existence for such a free-roaming, immensely intelligent and social gentle giant.

The end of this tradition brings much joy and relief among many in the animal protection movement. It has been a long, hard battle, one in which Maine was very much a part.

In 2000, animal advocates in Maine, led by Maine Friends of Animals, came together to mount a statewide campaign to support accompanying legislation to ban circuses with elephants from performing in the state. The effort was inspired by the young daughter of the bill’s sponsor, who testified that she thought it was horrible how circus elephants had to live.

The campaign culminated with the Maine House of Representatives voting in favor of the legislation in 2001 by a wide margin of 88-58. It was the first time in the country any such legislation had passed in any state legislative body. Unfortunately, Feld hired lobbyists, and the bill was defeated in the Maine Senate.

We immediately set up another two-year campaign, hired our own lobbyist and, in 2003, won a rules and regulations resolution in the Legislature. Ultimately, it was a disappointing end to four years of work, but on the positive side, the campaign generated an unusual amount of newspaper stories, television coverage and public discussion.

The seeds for change to end an outdated and cruel business model were planted in Maine. Ordinances were passed to ban animal-based circuses from municipalities across the country, including major cities such as Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. Promoting an alternative, we encouraged the public to go to increasingly popular circuses like Cirque du Soleil that are not animal-based.

The end did not come quickly or easily. Feld earned a reputation as being aggressive in handling adversaries and spent millions fighting federal violations of the Animal Welfare Act and litigation from activist groups. This final elephant performance is a huge victory, but it did not come because Feld had a change of heart. It came from the cumulative and increased outcry from activists and the general public.

We did our part in 2000-2004, albeit with much discouragement. However, being discouraged by the lack of measurable results does not mean giving up and going away, which is exactly what the opposition wants.

One can be demoralized by the seeming lack of progress, but remember that all such social movements, such as civil rights, gay rights and medical marijuana use, have similar cycles, and critical mass is needed to fully effect change.

On July 19 and 20, 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting the women the right to vote, was ratified – 72 years later.

Animal advocates should appreciate any success, realizing that progress often occurs through agonizingly small steps. Here in 2016, we see that the seeds we helped plant over a decade ago have germinated into meaningful change. Win each battle to end cruelty, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and animal advocates will win the war to bring animal protection into mainstream thinking.

As in all social movements, activists must continue to strive to achieve their goals, and, most importantly, never doubt that their causes are just. Regardless of some inevitable setbacks, the more we work toward that just goal, the sooner a more humane world will be had by those such as circus elephants.

Robert Fisk Jr. is a former Maine legislator who currently serves as president and executive director of Maine Friends of Animals in Falmouth.

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