In protest: Animal-rights activists say animals suffer in circus acts. They're doing their part to make paying customers just as uncomfortable.

CIRCUS SIDESHOW

March 18, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

It's been a long trip - 31 hours from Cincinnati into Baltimore, another nine sitting in the rail yard by the B&O Museum. At last the doors of the silver Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey train slide open and 15 unchained Asian elephants begin stepping carefully down ramps into the morning sunlight in one more city on the circus trail. The animals trumpet, snort, grope the pavement with their trunks as the crew lines them up to march down Pratt Street toward the Baltimore Arena.

Folks from the neighborhood are out with their kids and their cameras. P.T. Barnum, world-class promoter of Jumbo, could tell you: elephants draw a crowd. The locals are joined this morning by a leather and meat-shunning animal-rights advocate from Washington named Bill Stewart, who's here with his video camera, seeking evidence of animal abuse.

He's a volunteer foot soldier in a campaign being conducted by such groups as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Performing Animal Welfare Society. The mission: to turn public sentiment against the use of animals in circuses. Judging from the 11 million people who saw Ringling Bros. shows last year, they still have work to do.

In the sunshine of a rail yard Mr. Stewart tapes the scene: elephants walking off a train as if they've been commuting for years, as they have. The crew members guide them with their hands, their voices, the occasional touch of an ankus a rod about a yard long with a short hook on one side. Police stand by as horses and camels emerge from other rail cars.

In a few minutes the little parade is off, marching toward the arena, where the circus performs through Sunday. The elephants touted by Ringling as some of the most pampered animals on Earth will eat, drink, be bathed and await opening night chained at the legs backstage.

The scene seemed innocent enough to the layman's eye. But Mr. Stewart, who learned about elephants from books, saw misery written on those immense gray faces.

"They just looked like empty shells," he says earnestly. "Did you look in their eyes?"

An hour before The Greatest Show on Earth is to begin, one school of showmanship confronts another. Outside the arena on Baltimore Street, about 30 animal advocates from several local groups have gathered to demonstrate. Two women dressed as tigers, a third in a leopard suit hand out literature. The rest hoist picket signs and chant rhythmic slogans:

"CLOWNS YES, CRUELTY NO, RINGLING BROTHERS HAS GOT TO GO STOP THE TORTURE STOP THE PAIN, ANIMALS DON'T BELONG IN CHAINS "

Barnum would surely have scorned the animal-rights cause, but perhaps he'd have admired the movement's gift for attracting attention.

The movement has in its arsenal an array of emotionally loaded images offered in pamphlets, magazines, videotapes. Here's a sweet-faced elephant in a pen, looking at us from behind a chain. Here's a sad-looking muzzled bear, another bear riding a bicycle, a circus crewman who looks like a Hell's Angels recruit whacking an elephant on the legs with an ankus.

Some researchers and animal trainers dispute the accuracy of some of PETA's claims, but there's little doubt the organization's tactics have been effective in the past. In the last 10 years, attacks by PETA and other animal rights groups have turned an increasing number of Americans against wearing fur and using animals in laboratory experiments.

The demonstrators are philosophical descendants of animal advocates of the 1920s, who formed Jack London clubs in several cities to protest circus cruelty. They pressured Ringling Bros. into dropping some of its animal acts for four years that decade.

Now the pressure is being applied again. Local laws banning the use of animals in performance have been adopted recently in Hollywood, Fla.; Quincy, Mass., and several cities in Canada. Such measures have been defeated, however, in Toronto, Honolulu, New Hampshire and Boca Raton, Fla.

Animals are "really kind of the heart and soul of the circus," says Joan Galvin, Ringling's director of government relations.

The people at Circus Vargas in Southern California found that out when they dropped animals from their performances in 1994. Their experiment with the style of the Canadian Cirque du Soleil one of a handful of circuses that uses no animals failed at the box office. The next season the animals were back, says Vargas marketing director Ross Yukawa.

"For every animal-rights activist who would not go to a show with animals," he says, "there are a thousand people who wouldn't go to a show without them."

On Baltimore Street, the people who want to see the animals are running a gantlet past the demonstrators.

"STEP RIGHT UP," says a young man on a megaphone, "STEP RIGHT UP AND SEE THE ANIMALS IN CHAINS."

Some customers shout back, others clutch their child's hand and turn away.

"So what?" hollers Tanya Davis of Baltimore, as the megaphone guy continues his spiel. She's here with her 7-year-old son, Michael, and she's not about to be deterred.

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