CYNERGY: Enough clowning, animals deserve better

Cynthia Burton
Cynthia Burton

I took my daughter to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Pensacola Civic Auditorium when she was 3. She’s now 29, and the memory of the enormous elephants, talented trapeze artists and comical clowns lives on her memory and mine. Perhaps these memories are pervasive for very different reasons, though. At age 3, the pageantry, festivity, excitement and colorfulness of the event was magical and mesmerizing for Shannon. I was caught up in the bedazzlement and glitz, too.

However, I now realize that I was seeing this time-tested, world famous circus a bit differently than my daughter. My excitement soon abated that evening 26 years ago, and I was suddenly awash with pity for the animals — exotic or not — which paraded, performed and pleased their trainers in the confinement of the rings. I am not a “card carrying” member of the Humane Society or a zealous activist affiliated with PETA. But I remember feeling troubled and somewhat distraught over the animal performances, and this disturbing venue of entertainment was compounded by Ringling Bros. being in the news very recently. Certainly, the commanding presence of the ringmaster in top hat and coat, the clowns, acrobats, gymnasts, aerialists, motorcycle daredevils, trapeze artists, and jugglers bolstered and emboldened the masterful reputation of the “big top” and helped make hundreds of millions for the owners. At what cost to the animals, I wondered.

The three-ring circus was larger than life, featuring the majestic elephants performing amazing (and unnatural) feats of balance with the prod of a metal hook, tigers pawing and clawing as they pounced from perch to perch at the crack of the trainer’s whip, and pretty prancing horses in full regalia dutifully trotting as they were coaxed with a whip while costumed dogs rode nimbly on their backs. I personally believe one of the reasons that circus animals attack their trainers or try to escape from the confines of the circus is because the natural, wild and innate instinct to be free is hardwired into their brains. Chains, cages, whips, electric prods and metal hooks are certainly not a natural part of the wild environments these glorious creatures truly belong to and thrive in.

I’m not going to bring zoos into the conversation, as I believe in part that they are a way to showcase animals one does not see every day (such as cats and dogs) in artificially similar environs, and that a great deal can be learned from observing and studying zoo animals. How often to you get the opportunity to feed a giraffe up close and personal, come face to face with a silverback gorilla peering at you from the other side of the protective glass or see pandas playfully wrestling?

As I stated previously, I am not arguing for or against zoos. I am, however, stating that I will not be sad to see the Ringling Bros. circus (or any circus for that matter) fold up the tent and release wild animals to protected preserves or sanctuaries. It’s about time. Moreover, it’s time for the animals. Enough clowning around.

Cynthia Burton is a Destin resident and former U.S. Marine.