Circuses no tamer, just a lot less cruel

Animals: All-human shows doing the trick in an industry accused of mistreating its four-legged performers.

June 10, 1999|By David Haldane | David Haldane,LOS ANGELES TIMES

When Circus Chimera opened recently in Anaheim, Calif., it had the usual fare: jugglers, clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists.

What set the show apart was what it didn't have.

There were no elephants doing headstands, no lions or tigers snarling at trainers, no monkeys clinging to bareback riders on galloping horses. Every performer was human.

It's about time, animal-rights advocates and some circus officials say. "The show is better without the animals," said James Judkins, who created Circus Chimera last year in Hugo, Okla. "We decided that adding them wasn't going to be worth the argument."

Indeed, the long-standing argument about the ethics of animal acts is creating more and more alternatives to the so-called greatest show on Earth. To cut costs, avoid controversy and capture new audiences left cold by traditional circuses, a growing number of producers are putting together animal-free shows.

While some are fighting uphill battles to explain themselves to a large segment of the public still enamored of captive lions, tigers and elephants, others are enjoying phenomenal success.

Activists for years have protested the use of animals in circuses as exploitative and morally wrong. Circus owners, meanwhile, have argued that animals are well-treated cast members whose participation is essential to the big-top experience.

But now no fewer than a dozen animal-free shows are operating nationwide; a third of them have started in the last two years.

The best known, Cirque du Soleil, employs 1,500 people in eight units and projects attendance of 5 million this year across North America, Europe and Asia. The first nontraditional circus to come within shouting distance of Ringling Bros.' annual attendance of about 12 million, it has inspired a dozen imitators, among them Cirque Eloize, founded in Montreal in 1988; the Washington, D.C.-based Cirque Ingenieux, founded in 1997; Circus Chimera in Oklahoma and Circus Mellennia in Virginia, both founded in 1998; and Velocity Circus Troupe, formed in San Francisco earlier this year.

Even the venerable Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus has started a show whose only non-human performers are geese and horses. Barnum's Kaleidoscape, based in Virginia, made its debut April 30 to brisk ticket sales.

"This is going to be my dream circus," said Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive officer of Feld Entertainment, which owns both circuses and has been a frequent target of animal-rights protesters. "Obviously, we wouldn't go into this to cannibalize our existing business. We're going into it to try and get people who may not go to our other shows for whatever reason; the more people that come, the happier I'll be."

Animal advocates applaud the new circuses as a long-overdue alternative.

"I'm thrilled," said Jane Garrison, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a national organization based in Virginia that has sponsored demonstrations against circuses. "I look at this as a victory."

Many attendees say they prefer the new performances, whose sophisticated lighting, dramatic music and special effects are akin to theater as much as traditional circus.

"I wouldn't have come if they used animals," said Nancy Hosh, a kindergarten teacher, after a performance of Circus Chimera.

Tony Mercuro, a pharmaceutical representative, said "the smell is better and the excitement's still there." And 10-year-old Justine Holguin added that "it's better without the animals because that way they don't have to get whipped."

Many circus artists, too, applaud the change -- if for no other reason than that it focuses the spotlight on them.

"It's much better for the performers," said Walter Chimal, 21, a tumbler and acrobat for Circus Chimera. "In a traditional circus, after the show you ask people what they liked best, and they say they liked the elephants; they don't even notice the performers."

Pat Derby, a former animal trainer who directs the Performing Animal Welfare Society in Galt, Calif., said: "We've always wanted an alternative. If you go in and tell some Rotary Club that going to a circus is a bad thing, you feel like you're telling them there's no Santa Claus. This ... enables us to show that we're not pushing to abolish circuses, just cruelty."

Among the allegations made over the years were that circus trainers beat elephants and lions with chains and barbed poles, that the animals are kept in cages that are too small and that they are denied proper diet, exercise and medical care.

In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus with two violations of the Animal Welfare Act for allegedly mistreating its elephants. Inspectors said they found that several elephants had wounds caused by heavy hooks used to force them to perform. Circus representatives strongly denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, Ringling Bros. also came under fire for the treatment of its elephants. In an affidavit filed with the USDA, a former member of the circus' elephant crew alleged that the performing pachyderms were kept chained for hours in cramped quarters.

The former crew member further alleged that the elephants were routinely beaten with the heavy hooks -- sometimes until they bled -- to get them to perform. Ringling said the allegations were untrue, according to a report in the New York Post.

"The life of any animal in a circus is not a good life," said Todd Lurie, the humane society investigator who handled the case.

Pub Date: 6/10/99

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