“Are circuses cruel?” I have lost track of how many times I have heard that question since two circuses recently visited our area. The first thing I do is look at the animals themselves. I don’t care if it’s a zoo, the circus, the horse barn or your living room: animal care should be Job One any place. I’ve seen circus animals that were in magnificent shape and I have seen zoo animals that I think deserved better care. And vice versa. Then I watch the relationship between the animals and their trainer. Do the animals respond willingly or does each trick look like a reluctant effort? Then I want to know if the animals have an opportunity to play or exercise in between shows? European circuses have been proactive for decades in providing an opportunity for their animals to be active when not performing. They build up big “play pens” for their cats and bears and fence off large areas for the elephants so they are not chained on the picket line all day. Are the animals provided any enrichment? Those are things that create mental or physical stimulation. American circuses have done this to some degree but sadly for some it’s been too little, too late.
I don’t think I have ever really been a circus fan but I was a fan of the big cat shows. I collected videos, photos, and circus programs from all over the world. That was my profession albeit in a static not a traveling environment. Those men and women were my peers. Those were the kind of animals that I knew inside and out.
That was then, this is now. These days I suppose you could say I am retired big cat trainer who has become a zoo administrator. I haven’t done what is considered to be a legitimate cat show in sixteen years. Our guests still ask about the cat shows, all these years later, on almost a daily basis. But are such shows a thing of the past? Probably. Do I miss those days? Absolutely. I had the privilege of working with some of the most beautiful and regal animals on the planet. I spent fifteen years working cats in our shows down here and at the Cedar Point theme park in Ohio.
Yes, it was difficult and dangerous work that sometimes came with a heavy price. I had my share of stitches. But the rewards far outweighed the risks. I had close relationships with every one of the sixty leopards, tigers, lions, jaguars, and cougars I trained. I hand fed them as cubs, tended to them throughout their lives and wept bitterly when they died.
Nowadays I believe Naples Zoo, and all zoos, should be in the position to teach our guests to appreciate animals for what they are, not for what we can teach them to do. I think it is far more important for the public to know how close to extinction some species are and how they can support the work of those entities, in and outside the wild, that are working to save wild animals and wild places where they live.
So what’s the future of the circus? The circus with human performers will live on but I think animal acts will fade away. It’s already happening and those who don’t believe it are kidding themselves. Most of the best trainers are retired or have gone on to that great arena in the sky. The big shows used to have over forty big cats and carry more than twenty elephants. The circus that we recently saw had just six big cats and only three elephants. The very few animal acts left are simply here to witness the last gasp of a once popular profession.