Murphy: A Victory for Activists

January 24, 2018 08:00 AM
Of the many campaigns anti-industry activists embrace, few have been as thoroughly successful as the efforts to portray circus animals as abused and exploited. Here’s proof.

It’s very difficult to eliminate an industry that produces products that 90% to 95% of consumers use and desire.

That’s why the anti-industry activists, although they continue with the Meat is Murder and “cattle are killing people and the planet” mantras, are far from achieving their goal of transitioning humanity to a vegan lifestyle.

Over the last couple decades, however, activists have lined up their messaging, campaigning and protesting to attack three secondary targets: medical research labs, fur farms and circuses, in ascending order of the traction they’ve achieved in convincing consumers to equate cessation of those activities with the larger goal of promoting a universal vegan lifestyle.

Although research using primates has been sharply curtailed, selling the idea that “computers” (generically defined) can replace drug testing and surgical training, not to mention neurological and genetic disease research, has basically failed. Too many people realize that conditions such as Parkinson’s of Alzheimer’s can’t and won’t be solved by running some software program.

With the fur industry, prevailing opinion has turned against widespread acceptance of fur clothing, although that industry is far enough under the radar that the majority of Americans neither know nor care about activist campaigning against raising fur-bearing animals.

But with the once-popular institution of the traveling circus, complete with acrobats, clowns and a variety of animal acts, the activist community has succeeded in convincing the public that the concept of a circus animal trained to perform for an audience is anathema to anyone with a conscience.

Want proof? Check out the reaction to an Australian circus executive who argued that performing animals are a valid part of a circus’s entertainment package.

A Cruelty-Free Circus
In a story published by the Sydney Morning Herald titled, “Circus Oz boss angers animal rights activists with comments,” one of the top officials with Australia’s Circus Oz has “divided fans and angered animal rights activists,” according to the story, by arguing that all types of the art, including performances using animals, are valid.

As the newspaper reported, Circus Oz Artistic Director Rob Tannion posted on Facebook earlier this month that incorporating animals into stage shows is “the artistic choice” of individual entertainment companies.

One important piece of the Circus Oz backstory: The circus is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2018 as a company founded to entertain audiences with acrobatics and other acts, without the need to “showcase lions jumping through hoops or monkeys riding bicycles.”

Despite that history, Tannion posted that, “Sadly, some mainstream films and media choose to focus on the negative representation of some elements of past practices with regards to animal care, treatment and welfare — without taking the time to look into animal care practices currently employed.

“[T]hese old and tired assumptions are easy to keep reinforcing. These [perspectives on animal treatment] are not views supported by Circus Oz.”

Tannion’s statement angered many Circus Oz fans, according to the newspaper, with a handful even threatening to join a boycott against the company.

“What antiquated, cruel and selfish views you hold,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “To share this view publicly shows a complete disregard for the progressive measures previously held by this circus. Humans have a choice to entertain, animals don’t.”

Later, in speaking to Fairfax Media, Tannion clarified that Circus Oz officially remains neutral after receiving approval of the current entertainment package as “cruelty-free” because there are no animal performances. Moreover, the company won’t be incorporating animals into future productions, he said.

But Tannion didn’t stop there.

“If a circus chooses to use animals, I think that’s their prerogative,” he said. “Irrespective of what myself or the wider Circus Oz [community] may believe — and there are varied and conflicting opinions — it’s not our place to make a moral or ethical judgment on those circuses.

“It’s so, so complex. I’m really hoping we [as an industry] can have a dialogue.”

Uh, Mr. Tannion: You’re a little late to the party.

That circus train has already left the station. The fact that dozens of so-called Circus Oz fans went online to condemn Tannion’s remarks is a sure indicator that the fight over whether exotic animals be trained to perform in traveling circuses is over.

Activists 1, Circuses 0.

And to be honest, the activist argument against the employment of circus animals is not without validity.

As Australia’s scientific officer for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), Dr. Bronwyn Orr, told Fairfax Media, a circus cannot provide the appropriate environment for wild or exotic animals.

“Even those that have been bred in captivity over many generations are not considered domesticated,” she said. “They still retain their wildness and their instincts for wild behaviors. Performing circus animals are kept for long periods in close confinement, in artificial social groups [and that] often leads to stress, boredom and abnormal behaviors.”

Hard to argue with that characterization.

Truthfully, there was always something of a guilty pleasure watching tigers sitting on stands forced to growl as a “trainer” cracks a whip at them, or watching elephants dolefully trudging around the ring holding each other’s tails while wearing some sparkly headdress.

And with the advent of more iterations of Cirque de Soleil than Hollywood superhero sequels, the public has moved on from an appreciation of traditional circus acts, whether from sensitivity to animal welfare or from sheer boredom with the lack of “special effects” live animal shows can’t deliver.

Even Las Vegas icons Siegfried and Roy, the latter of whom was bitten and nearly killed by one of the white tigers featured in their stage show, have abandoned their act and instead now operate Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage hotel.

Whether a facility at a Vegas casino qualifies as a sanctuary is for discussion in another column. The point is that when it comes to circus animals, the activists have won.

Now the fight continues on every other front.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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