Over the weekend, Ringling Brothers announced it will be performing its last circus show later this spring after more than 146 years traveling the world with what it called “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
A victory for animal rights activists everywhere, the news was exhilarating, but also bittersweet. Of course it means animals will no longer be forced to live in Ringling Brothers’ cages, beaten with bull hooks and whips, and forced to perform on command, but there is, too, a deep sense of sadness and grief for all those animals who suffered in the last century-and-a-half at the hands of “entertainment.”
The news comes at a time when the world feels rather chaotic (certainly in the week that Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States)–and this little glimmer of hope does not mean an end to the circus industry overnight. But it’s helluva start and an important reminder that continued effort does pay off, even if it takes more than one’s lifetime to be realized. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once noted, “the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
A vegan more than two decades now, I can’t recall the precise moment where it all clicked for me, but there are fragmented childhood memories: realizing what a chicken wing was and not being able to finish my dinner as a result, the orangutan at the Pittsburgh Zoo screaming at me through her glass enclosure, a butterfly liquefying on my parents’ car windshield as they drove me deeper on toward overnight summer camp. The experiences all added up over the first decade of my life, hurtling me toward veganism.
If I attended the circus as a young child, I have no memory of it, thankfully, but that fact didn’t make me any less passionate about seeing it come to an end. The absurdity. The horror. What is it in us that makes seeing a bear ride a bicycle or an elephant balance on a stool seem harmless or worthwhile? And why do we suppress our sense of morals in the name of entertainment, or food, or clothing for that matter? If there is a dividing line between humans, it is perhaps not our religion, nor our politics, but the deep chasm of separation on the issue of whether or not animals do indeed have any inalienable rights.
About fifteen years ago, driven by disdain for circuses, among the many other common practices that involve animals, I stripped down to pasties and underwear. A makeup artist helped to paint my skin orange and then we applied black stripes. I put on cat ears, whiskers, and held a little sign in front of my nipples as I climbed into a cage on a busy downtown Miami street. I was there to help PETA protest the circus slated to come to town. The group needed a volunteer to get in the cage, and for the animals, there’s not much I wouldn’t do. I was so committed to the cause, I didn’t even stop to think about how I would feel being trapped in the cage, even just for a few hours.
I’d never identified as being claustrophobic, but once I crawled into the cage, I was suddenly overwhelmed with fear. I could not stand up. My knees hurt as the hard sidewalk concrete dug into my naked skin. And as a crowd of people and media gathered (the goal of having mostly naked women at the protest, of course) I began to feel even more discomfort. There was nowhere for me to hide, no way for me to avoid the constant gawking and talking—even when some of it was supportive. People stepped in close, staring at me, and I assume the fact that I was essentially naked, added both to their curiosity and my utter sense of vulnerability. Some treated me like an animal, talking about me as if I wasn’t there, poking at me. My body filled with adrenaline and so much sadness.
And this was the unexpected side-effect of my protest. While I was fully prepared to represent the animals, I had not been prepared to relate to what it actually feels like to be one, trapped inside a cage.
From the physical pain to having people gawking at me, I was overwhelmed. I started to cry. From there, I could easily imagine what it would feel like to be forced to jump through hoops or be beaten with a whip or any other of the many tortures animals in circuses experience on a daily basis. This experience further cemented my commitment to the cause. Not that I ever had any doubts about it.
While Ringling Brothers says its decision to close was not influenced by decades of protest from animal rights activists, there’s no question that the common perception of circuses has shifted over the years, leading to its declining sales. And that is due in large part to the pressure animal rights organizations have put on circuses to end the egregious cruelty involved.
Recently, I reported that endangered species are being impacted by our consumption habits. The report showed that most everything we purchase is, in one way or another, contributing to the accelerated loss of our fellow earthlings.
It’s troubling not just from an ecosystem balance perspective–but it can also make us feel helpless, and wonder why we should even bother making the effort. But it doesn’t mean our lives have to shut down or that we should give up the cause. In fact, it does serve to remind us that, like naturist John Muir once noted, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
It’s the inescapable truth about life, and certainly about our choices. And while there may be many layers out of our control, coming to that realization on our own, however we must do it—be it religion, drugs, or activism for humans or animals—that is truly “the greatest show” of human kindness and compassion. What’s more entertaining than living a life like that?
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