Barnum, Exotic, and Sea World, Oh My

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

By Arian Tomar


Image via The Circus Blog


Bright colors —red, white, and blue— adorn the fairgrounds with patriotic appeal as spotlights shine and beckon families to the entrance. In a barrage of the senses, the echoing blast of bombastic brass rings out among the wafting aroma of saccharine snacks. Youthful eyes widen at the sight of beasts from the far reaches of the globe with tiny hands grabbing at cotton candy and filling the big top full of delighted squeals. The calliope calls and cornets clash against the trumpets of elephants, the bays of donkeys, the barks of dogs, and the roars of big cats. Out into the ring steps a great showman dressed in red and black with a top hat seated firmly on their head. Under the reach of the tent, the king of the jungle is little more than a house cat under the control of the ringmaster. Despite the amazing feats of human performance —acrobatics, juggling, pantomime, and equestrian acts— nothing compares to the novelty animals on display.


The origin of the modern circus is widely attributed to the contributions of Philip Astley, an Englishman who established the first space to incorporate acrobatics, trick horse riding, clowns, and numerous circus staples in 1770. Astley never used feral animals during his shows but as early as 1720, foreign animals joined traveling menageries. Following the popularization of the circus, animal menageries became synonymous with the spectacle of the big top.


One of the biggest names in the circus, Phineas Taylor Barnum, did not initially start out as the world’s greatest showman. An article published by the Smithsonian Magazine explores Barnum’s past. In the 1830s, P.T. Barnum rose to prominence by exploiting Joice Heth — a “rented” African-American woman that was passed off as the 161 year-old former nurse of George Washington. Barnum exploited the novelty of a black woman in order to make a name for himself and in doing so, he discovered the popularity of human curiosities. Barnum exploited the public’s desire for the freakish at his American Museum where visitors could interact with curiosities authentic and fictitious alike. The curiosities found in Barnum’s American Museum ranged from imported foreign animals to hoaxes —such as the Feejee mermaid that was actually a preserved monkey’s head sewn to the tail of a fish— as well as Barnum’s “living curiosities.”


One such “living curiosity” was William Henry Johnson, an African-American man who had formerly been a cook for another showman. At the American Museum, Johnson was advertised as “a kind of man-monkey” from “the wilds of Africa.” Barnum’s abhorrent racial othering found its way into many of his “living curiosities” such as “Aztec” children from El Salvador and the “Siamese Twins,” Chang and Eng. Throughout his career, Barnum made it clear that he was not one to shy away from playing up gaudy, exoticized acts for profit.


Understanding Barnum’s complicated past dealings are integral to understanding the foundation he set for circuses. Though Astley may have been the father of the modern circus and John Bill Ricketts was the first to bring circuses to the United States, P.T. Barnum revolutionized the business for the American market in 1870. One of the most famous attractions of Barnum’s circus was Jumbo —the world’s largest elephant— who was acquired by Barnum in 1882. The rampant devaluation of living beings for profit found in the circus industry has largely been shied away from in public light.


Given the prominence of the circus and its animal menageries through the late 19th century, paired with Barnum’s contributions to popularizing circuses for the American market, it does not require a stretch of the imagination to see why the Philadelphia Zoo opened as the United States’ first zoo on July 1st, 1874. Barnum brought animals foreign to the hemisphere for thousands of visitors to see and seemingly popularized the public’s interest in viewing animals in captivity.


I believe that Barnum’s commodification of his human “living curiosities” and the circus’ impact on putting captive “exotic” animals into the mainstream created a corrupt foundation for entertainment in the United States. Barnum’s callous disregard for the human lives he exoticized and displayed in cages and likely extended his animal performers like Jumbo.


Even before Barnum’s days under the big top, activist groups have advocated for the ethical treatment of animals with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals being created by Henry Bergh in April of 1866. Ever since then, more evidence has come to light that performances dependent on animal acts have routinely employed less than moral means of maintaining obedience.


In a groundbreaking 2011 exposé by Mother Jones, the truth was uncovered about The Greatest Show on Earth’s malpractice. In 1967, Kenneth Feld’s family bought the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for more than $8 million and “folded it into an entertainment empire” which includes various performances such as “Ringling’s three year-round touring circus troupes, as well as Disney On Ice, Disney Live, and Monster Jam.” Feld Entertainment attracts more than “30 million people” annually with an estimated yearly revenue of “between $500 million and $1 billion.” Despite such popularity, Feld’s greatest draw is their “four-ton behemoths” that generate “more than $100 million annually” according to a testimony from Feld executives.


With such revenues to support the health and care of their cash creatures, Feld Entertainment claims its population of Asian elephants to be “pampered performers” that receive training through “positive reinforcement, a system of repetition and reward that encourages an animal to show off its innate athletic abilities.” Despite such claims, Mother Jones has found that most Ringling elephants live in chains within the confines of insufficiently sized spaces, “under constant threat of the bullhook” or ankus. These extremely intelligent and social creatures face years of abuse and “deadly diseases rare in the wild” that have been “linked to captivity.”


Little more than a century has passed since the inception of the American circus and the cruelty of captivity has only gotten worse. As the muckrakers during the Progressive Era of the United States (1890s-1920s) exposed the corruption of their day, investigative journalism continues to be a powerful force for change in the 21st century.


The Mother Jones investigation into Feld Entertainment’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus brought a number of takeaways to public knowledge. First, the body that circus oversight rests with —the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA— is spread thin with an annual budget “of only $16 million” and about 8,000 employees that monitor “nearly 9,000 animal entertainment, breeding, and research facilities.” This has left the organization with little capacity to “prosecute many cases.”


Second, there is a political element in deciding to prosecute. Mother Jones journalist Deborah Nelson, connected with Kenneth H. Vail, who has served for decades as the lead legal counsel for the USDA on animal welfare cases. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service employees can advocate to take action against an organization, but if “their evidence could [not] withstand a legal challenge by the company,” then the case would be dead. Choosing the right battles to conserve department resources and energy is crucial to making progress for animal rights, but unfortunately, this means that companies like Feld Entertainment often go unchecked.


Lastly, the legislation protecting animal rights is not clearly defined. “There’s no way to control an elephant without an ankus,” which isn’t prohibited by the Animal Welfare Act, Veil explained. These three factors result in a general lack of oversight for companies like Feld Entertainment. Animal abuse runs deep in entertainment and without sufficiently addressing the complexity of the issue, this abuse will see no end.


In 2017, Feld Entertainment issued a statement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would end its 146 year-run in May. A Time article covering the statement in January of 2017 shared Feld Entertainment CEO and chairman, Kenneth Feld’s, reasoning for the closure. Ticket sales were on the decline well before the company decided to retire its iconic elephant acts which only dropped sales further, “This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company,” said Feld. With no acknowledgment of the abuse done to Ringling’s elephants, Kenneth Feld made a purely economical business decision that would displace between “40 and 50 animals, including about 18 tigers.”


Whether the move to end the Ringling traveling circus was purely business-related or if it was motivated by the fall out of the 2011 Mother Jones investigation, the power of the press is undeniable and hopefully represented the end of years of animal abuse.


Regarding the eighteen displaced tigers, they found a new home at Zirkus Krone, a circus located in Munich, Germany. A CBS News article in May of 2017 raised some concerns regarding the laws around applying to export the group of tigers to Germany. For Ringling to receive the permit to export these tigers, they would have to prove that exporting the tigers would “enhance the propagation or survival of the species.” Senior staff attorney for the animal Legal Defense Fund, Tony Eliseuson, explained the problem with this enhancement requirement, “What the service has done in the past is that instead of having business prove that an import or export is going to benefit the species as a whole, they've allowed you to make a nominal donation to any kind of conservation group or purpose in exchange for rubber-stamping the permit.” This way, Ringling can simply donate to authorize that their transaction with Zirkus Krone will “enhance the survival” of the tigers. Again, this shows just how much work there is to be done regarding animal welfare legislation.


This is merely one example of how organizations like the Ringling Bros. and Bailey & Barnum Circus can skirt laws to their own benefit. A few years prior, and thousands of miles away in a remote part of the United States, a now-famous tiger case echoes the continued complexity of addressing animal rights.


Written by Arian Tomar

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