by: Tristan Risk "Little Miss Risk"
It's going to be weird for people to hear me say this, but good riddance to The Ringling Brothers circus. The famed circus, which has been an American institution since the days when Ulysses S. Grant graced the White House will be sending in the clowns for the last time come May. But simply because something has history and tradition doesn't automatically make it something worth mourning it's loss. While held in the collective American subconscious as a paragon of simpler times, and misplaced nostalgia, we all know that older isn't necessarily better. While the last few shows have been selling probably more tickets than they have in the past few years, after May, the 'Greatest Show On Earth' will join the outdated forms of entertainment such as minstrel shows and midget tossing.
Between increased travel costs, and modern distractions, Ringling Brothers has had to fight for it's audience amidst the rising digital entertainment era, not to mention a constant crossing of swords with animal rights activists. Much like a grumpy old white racist who is disillusioned because he can't grab the waitress by the ass anymore in the name of fun and games, the RB has been reluctant to let go of a major component of what made it popular under contemporary social pressure. Namely the animals in general, and the elephants in particular. As we grow and progress as a modern society, we realize that political correctness is less about policing what we can and can't say, and realizing it has more to do with just not saying hurtful shitty things to other humans, whether they be racist, sexist or homophobic. We look at Sea World, and where we once saw happy kids clapping at the antics of Shamu, we now look at it and think of Tilikum in Black Fish and feel collectivly guilty, and rightfully so. Where we once clamoured to see elephants performing fine feats, we now recognize that these animals have a highly complex social structure, and circuses, much like Ringling Brothers, has only served to showcase animal misery at it's finest for human entertainment. As a whole, humans who have evolved beyond a Neanderthal mindset have collectivly shied away from paying to watch animals tortured into performing for our own amusement.
DEATH KNELL FOR RINGLING BROTHERS CIRCUS
Animals were very much part of the circus of yesteryear. In the 1880s, before the Internet was stuck into our hip pocket and a finger-swipe away, people had two choices if they wanted to see exotic animals. Either get on a steamer ship and brave the unknown, or the more popular option of visiting a zoo or circus. Many early traveling circuses in fact were a showcase of an animal collection of various degrees, and a few human oddities born of genetic disabilities due to poor health practices, or people captured and kept as chattel from other nations. Around these travelling shows, myths and legends sprung up, and allowed man to be self-congratulatory about his mastery over the beasts. These animals and exhibitions were often kept within family businesses, or bought and sold as smaller travelling shows folded and were absorbed into larger travelling shows. Human performances were always part of the three-ring circus experience, but nothing would draw a crowd like a lion tamer, an elephant parade, or acorbatics done on horseback. A circus in those days without any animals was doomed to failure, and the performers would likely scatter to other shows. It has been due to that people have always traditionally associated the 'circus' with 'live animal show'.
However, there is a very dark side to this. Unaware that removing these animals from their wild homes and social structures, placing them in confining cages and beating them into performing tricks, these creatures would, like any human, snap. In 1916, an elephant named Annie was nicknamed 'Murderous Annie' and was hung in Erwin, Tennessee from a 100-ton derrick. After being prodded behind the ear with an elephant hook, she flung her assailant against a drink stand with her trunk, and then stepped on his head. The circus owner, one Charlie Sparks, decided the only way to save his circus from fiscal ruin was a public execution of the elephant. She was hung, and after two unsuccessful attempts and a broken hip, Mary died. A vet who examined her body noted an infected tooth where her trainer had prodded her. In 1903, Topsy the elephant was electrocuted on Coney Island. After a series of events where Topsy had lashed out trainers and audience members, the publicity-hungry Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy had planned a public hanging, much like Annie's had been after, but was stopped by the SPCA. However, they wouldn't be denied their sensationalisim, and to a select crowd of guests and press strangled her, fed her poison and electorcuted her. On Jan.4th, 1903, Topsy suffered a horrendous death, which was filmed as a demonstration of electric by a member of the Edison Manufacturing movie company, which later would be available for viewing on a kinetoscope under the title, 'Electrocuting An Elephant'.
Let's think about this - men thought to film an elephant's execution, for the benefit of entertainment. It's things like that the phrase, 'what the fuck' was coined.
While elephants were sometimes responsible for circus deaths, the largest fatality count came from large cats, mostly lions. In 1903, a bandstand was set up over the big cat's cage. Before canned music, live bands would play the soundscape for the live shows. with three rings under a tent, and wanting to pack them in, space was something of an issue. Tragedy reared it's head when a band was perched on top of the lion's cage. Shoddy workmanship is likely the cause, but whatever the reason, the platform gave, spilling the men into the cage with the cats. Those that didn't die immediately from the attacks later succumbed to their injuries. A young lion tamer named Massarati had his head popped like a grape in the jaws of a lion in 1872 during a performance in front of nearly 700 horrified spectators. On top of trying to tame animals who were living in what we know nw to be highly stressful and abusive conditions, it's little wonder that maulings were commonplace.
Aside from being unsuitable living conditions, they were often times unsafe. Given that safety was usually an afterthought in the heyday of circus, I can call to mind a number of fires where animals were left to be burned alive as people stampeded away from the flames. The Hartford Circus fire of 1944 and the Cleveland circus fire prior to that in 1942, were both in the Barnum And Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus shows. Few animals survived either of these. However, those that didn't die immediately, but were mortally burned, were so badly far gone that they were put down by police with machine guns. Both are considered two of the worst circus disasters of all time, only two years apart. Even with forward thinking people causing dwindling attendance decades later, Ringling Brothers still fought tooth and nail against allegations that they abused their elephants. While the 14 year legal battle over this has come to an end, the damage is done, and nobody wanted to see elephants performing tricks. It wasn't until 2016, when all 40 of the elephants were sent to the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.
I love being a circus performer. That said, watching humans perform feats of strength, flexibility and skill has always been more entertaining for me. I am always floored seeing the performers in Vancouver who inspire me casually balance their weight on their hands, or dangle high above the floor in a joyful 'fuck you' to gravity. But there are still people who will always demand to see animal performances in the circus, but I offer a humble, albeit, unconventional solution. In addition to being a circus/sideshow enthusiast, I have a reputation as something of a kinkster. While my own specific tastes have been known to be unconventional, there are two types who would suit the circus and save the animal show. My friends the furries, the pony girls, and the puppy boys. With humans taking on the role of a 'fursona' where they adopt a character of various animals then dress in corresponding costume, or animal 'pet play' wherein there is a 'trainer' and then the 'pup', 'pony' or other animal of their choice, this seems to me a reasonable alternative to caging animals for human entertainment. This serves two purposes: the animal show aspect of the circus will finally be a guilt-free indulgence, and dozens of kinksters who fetishize this type of roleplay will be able to live out the ultimate fantasy. All around, it is a win-win for everyone.
And ultimately, I daresay you even could get away with abusing these animals with whips, and as long as everyone gives consent, then it truly would be the greatest show on earth.