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Big problems under the big top

How you can help wild animals in circuses and traveling shows

All Animals magazine, September/October 2017

by M. Carrie Allan

Photo illustration Jill Carmody/The HSUS (tiger: csa-printstock/Istock.com; hand opening curtain: razihusin/Istock.com).

Only days before Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus held its final show in May—a moment widely acclaimed as a victory for the animal welfare movement— The HSUS revealed its undercover investigation into ShowMe Tigers, an act used by the Carden Circus and many Shrine Circuses. Disturbing footage showed the trainer repeatedly whipping at, striking and terrifying the tigers to make them obey and perform in the ring.

In the wake of the investigation, The HSUS filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asking the agency to investigate ShowMe Tigers and enforce federal law. The case is a troubling reminder that, even with the end of the Ringling era, abuses of performing animals continue. While Ringling was the biggest name in the circus world, it was never the only player: Around the country, traveling animal acts continue to pop up at county fairs and local showgrounds, typically with little scrutiny of how they’re treating their animals.

Animal abuses like cruel training methods and extreme confinement are inherent to such “entertainment,” says Debbie Leahy, captive wildlife manager for The HSUS. No matter how cheerful the advertising, no matter how bright and shiny the colorful tents and lights, there are really no animal-friendly circuses—except for those that don’t use animals. For example, Leahy points out, every circus uses performing elephants has trainers using bullhooks—tools to hit, drag and otherwise frighten these enormous animals into compliance.

“Animals don’t perform these kinds of tricks because they want to. They perform because they’re afraid not to,” Leahy says.

The HSUS continues to work on strengthening federal and state laws to prohibit the display of wild animals in circuses and other traveling shows—and pushing to ensure that existing laws are enforced—but some of the biggest successes have come from citizen advocates working in their own communities. To assist them, The HSUS has developed a toolkit to educate and empower people who care but may be new to activism. Leahy hopes it will give people information that allows them to engage at whatever level they feel capable of, even through actions as simple as writing a letter to the editor of their local newspaper. “We want people to be thinking about how to put a stop to it,” Leahy says.

TAKE ACTION: Request the toolkit.

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