Barnum's Animal Crackers Have Been Freed From Their Cages

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
©. PETA (used with permission)

The redesigned box shows animals on the savannah, which is meant to reflect modern values.

For the past 116 years, the animals pictured on Nabisco's beloved boxes of animal crackers have been shown behind bars. But now they've been released, thanks to pressure from animal rights group PETA. The redesigned packaging portrays uncaged animals -- a zebra, elephant, lion, giraffe, and gorilla -- standing in a row and facing the viewer with African savannah and trees in the background.

The update has been in the works for a few years. It started in 2016 when PETA sent Nabisco a letter, saying times have changed and shoppers are no longer comfortable seeing animals behind bars. PETA wanted Nabisco's packaging to reflect this cultural shift and even sent a sample redesign for inspiration. The New York Times quoted PETA's letter:

“Circuses tear baby animals away from their mothers, lock animals in cages and chains, and cart them from city to city,” the animal rights group wrote in the letter. “They have no semblance of a natural life.”

The timing of the letter coincided with the elimination of elephants from the Ringling Brothers' circus, followed by a full shutdown of the 146-year-old circus in May 2017 due to plummeting ticket sales. It seemed that, once elephants were no longer part of the show, people weren't as eager to go.

Barnum's animal crackers have been around since 1902, and very little has changed on its packaging since then. This makes it extra challenging for the manufacturer to update, since the brand is deeply ingrained in people's minds; its endurance "speaks to the power of nostalgia." The update remains similar to the original, featuring bright yellow and red colors and the same font, copy, and animals.

old Barnum's animal crackers box

Bradley Stemke -- The old Barnum's animal crackers box/CC BY 2.0

The Humane Society of the United States is also delighted by the change. Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection at HSUS, told the New York Times,

“Today’s consumers are savvy shoppers and they want to buy products that are consistent with their values. We’re glad to see that Nabisco is keeping up with the times.”

But not everyone is thrilled. As Daisy Alioto wrote for Vox, the new art "doesn’t address any of the underlying issues about ethics, exploitation, and corporate greed." Alioto, whose uncle designed the original box with caged circus animals, argues that

"the symbolic significance of changing the animal cracker box design does little to dismantle the elements of capitalism that exploit animals, people, and the environment. When art in advertising bears the burden for corporate malpractice, the people involved in these changes get to feel good, but other mechanisms continue to thrive under the surface."

She cites Nabisco's parent company Mondelez International's CEO as having a salary 402 times higher than that of the average employee, and criticizes the ultimatum that Mondelez apparently gave many of its workers in 2016 -- either move to Mexico or take a 60 percent payout to chip away at the millions that would've been saved by a move.

While I am no fan of animal circuses either and think the new packaging is cute and appealing, I do find it amusing that PETA zoomed in on the box art as being problematic, as opposed to the actual fact that children are eating animals, often with dramatic decapitations. What about the symbolism in that? I wonder how long it will be before it's pressuring Nabisco to make vegetable-shaped crackers instead.