First of all, tigers, lions, bears, elephants, and other animals do not willingly or happily ride bicycles, stand on their heads, balance on balls, or jump through rings of fire. This isn’t their natural behavior, nor do they perform these and other tricks because they want to; they perform them because they're afraid of what will happen if they don't.
Feld Entertainment, Ringling Brothers parent company, will tell you that their animals are "pampered” and trained through positive reinforcement, a system of repetition and reward that encourages an animal to show off its “innate athletic abilities.”
Unsuspecting parents planning a family trip to the circus, however, may never know about the constant confinement and violent training sessions with ropes, chains, whips, bull hooks, and electric shock prods that animals endure. A casual Google search will turn up undercover footage and heartbreaking photos demonstrating the reality of what circus animals experience. As recently as November 2011, the Ringling Brothers Circus was fined $270,000 by the United States Department of Agriculture for violating the Animal Welfare Act on at least 27 different occasions between 2007 and 2011.
Let’s talk about something even more important, however. Even if reformed, even if the treatment of animals was improved to the point that no circus was ever found guilty of violating a cruelty law, the treatment of animals in entertainment, or any sort of confinement, by itself does not address the underlying circumstances in which such forms of animal exploitation are considered acceptable. Circuses, zoos, rodeos, aquariums and other forms of animal “entertainment” exist because human consumers continue to create demand for such things. And let’s not ignore the exploitation of animals for food, clothing, or scientific research. Animals in any of these situations are only given the minimum level of care necessary for the particular purpose in which they are being used. Regardless of how they’re treated, whether an animal is being used for our entertainment, is the object of medical research, or is raised for human consumption, their interests not to be used as property and live free of confinement and exploitation are ignored in the pursuit of profit.
To industries that views sentient creatures as economic units – it is inevitable that such exploitation and violence will be viewed as acceptable. As legal scholar and pioneer of the Abolitionist Approach to animal rights, Gary Francione often points out, “…in a system where animals are considered the property of humans, even their most significant interests can, and are, eclipsed by the comparably trivial human interest of profit. Trying to "balance" the interests of a piece of property against the interests of a property owner is like playing in a rigged card game.” Because the mechanisms in place are fundamentally unfair, it simply can’t be done.
Francione also emphasizes, “If we are really to honor the moral interests of animals, then we must abolish institutionalized animal exploitation and not merely regulate animal use through animal welfare measures that assume the legitimacy of the status of animals as property.”
It's 2014, and entertainment for children or adults need not come at the expense of animals, so don’t take part in it. Refuse to support animal circuses and the use of animals in entertainment. But recognize that circuses only represent one form of animal exploitation; understand that they are not morally different from any other form of exploitation; and realize that we should also refuse to accept the notion that animals are ours to eat, wear or use in some other way.
If you believe in taking the interests of all animals as seriously as say, the family dog or cat, then go vegan. Being vegan is your everyday statement that things are not right as they are and that you’re one more person standing up to be counted in opposition to all forms of animal exploitation. No other lifestyle choice has a more profoundly positive impact on the planet and all life on earth than choosing to become vegan.
Now with the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, Demosthenes is part of a team that provides community education and fosters informed debate on key issues related to sustainability. His work also includes integrating concepts of sustainability, environmental protection, and veganism into the curriculum, operations and culture at Molloy College and the larger Long Island community. He hosts the Sustainability Institute’s Sustainable Living Film Series that boasts an entirely vegan menu at each screening, and makes the ethics and environmental benefits of the veganism a central focus of each event.
Demosthenes holds degrees in Sociology and Business Management from St. John’s University. He has been an ethical vegan since 1989.