Circus life has always been a fantastic experience of mine since I was a child. I remember those moments so vividly, with all the trucks advertised with photos of what to expect during their stay.
The Ringling Brothers Circus would come and pitch these large tents, setting up mini carnivals around the main attraction. These memories filled with playful music, along with the smells of cotton candy, popcorn, hot dogs, burgers, nachos with cheese and funnel cakes.
What made this experience exciting for me was being able to watch the animals, naively thinking, perform with such delight. I was always so eager to see the elephants, waiting for that one moment to be up close and personal. Being from a small town (Havelock, North Carolina), this was a rarity.
Aside from the elephants, they had horses, tigers, lions, llamas and goats that contributed to making the experience overall “magical.” I don’t even recall even paying much attention to any other performance if it refrained from using animals. The portion that grasped my attention the most was how a handler could train animals that were known to be so powerful.
Life of enslavement
What never crossed my mind was how an animal not meant for domestication enjoyed living an unnatural lifestyle? I thought “they take excellent care of these animals” not understanding that excellent care should deem a life of enslavement.
Of course, there are a few circuses that refrain from the exploitation of animals, maintaining successful businesses. One circus that my family and I were able to experience was “Uncles Sam’s Great American Circus” in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
As my children bounced their way towards the entrance, I could feel those child-like emotions begin to rekindle. As we approached the gate, they had a ticket booth set up where you can purchase your choice for seating. Since this was our children’s first time, we went with the ringside seats.
Upon entering the tent, they had a member checking tickets and guiding you towards the section you purchased. The tent was heated as advertised, making the experience extremely comfortable. Not to mention the fantastic staff that balanced off each other throughout the entire show. I enjoyed the creativity between the use of a DJ and live instruments. I was impressed by their flawless coordination.
I was aware that this circus excluded the use of animals in their acts, so I was very eager to see how enjoyable this experience would become. Each performance was something out of a storybook, seamlessly transitioning to the next. Not only did this show capture my attention, but it maintained the focus of our five and three-year-old. I was shocked and inspired by how circus life has still retained its definition of wonder and suspense.
I was a bit overwhelmed by all the smells that interacted with the overall experience. My husband and I were laughing about how it’s amazing that our bodies are expecting to indulge in these types of meals for specific events. We could feel our bodies telling us “this is a special occasion, buy it and enjoy the show!”
Having been vegan for three months now and understanding the risks of carnism, we refrained from indulging. Those habits were extremely easy to dismiss since our disgust of meat consumption trumps desire. We were just as happy with buying plain fries and popcorn, which our children enjoyed very much.
“That’s an animal! That’s wrong mom”
What was even more interesting about this moment, was how my son was paying attention to the food choice of people around him. He stated, “mom, did you know they sell hot dogs?! That’s an animal! That’s wrong mom”. I was very pleased that he was making his own decision to enjoy the time we were having while being able to eat without “cheating” his integrity.
The problem of food consumption and animal welfare is undoubtedly an ongoing battle that I will continue to advocate. At this moment, I faced with two realities of something I partook in as a child: animal exploitation with food and circus life.
Real talent at the circus
Uncle Sam’s Great American Circus proved my memories of happiness to be false. You do not need to see the performance of animals to have a fantastic time at a circus. Quite frankly, I believe animals take the show entirely away from all the other acts. I never focused on these types of performances before. I feel like I missed out on fantastic talent, all forgotten because I wanted to “see the animals.”
When you focus on the complexity and time dedicated towards each act, it becomes extraordinary to ponder. The beauty of perfecting a talent that projects enchantment, while living a family bonded, nomadic lifestyle, has depth all on its own.
We need to direct the attention back to the real performers. We need to realize that the real art in circus life grew from passion, transpiring into business all over the world, tainting the genuine aspirations of circus life.
Seeing animals perform is captivating but it stretches their life in captivity. Experiencing circus performances without the exploitation of animals is possible and allows the real performers to receive the gratitude they deserve. Focus on the real performers and not the ones enslaved.
All pictures by Isabella Lawrence
What an intelligent, insightful and thoughtful commentary on circuses and their captivity and use of animals. I have seldom seen this issue explored with such depth of compassion and consideration. It is a brilliant discourse on the history and potential evolution and future of circuses. Well done, and I plan to share this.