Should I Not Take My Kids to the Circus?

Circus elephants. Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

Q: So, I just caught the film adaptation of “Water for Elephants.” Great film (love that Robert Pattinson) but the depictions of animal abuse left me a bit shaken. I know the film was a historical drama and assume that the treatment of circus animals has changed for the better over the years, but I wonder if it has changed enough. Is the very presence of animals at circuses — no matter how they are treated — cruel? Normally, I take my two circus-loving boys to the big top when it comes to town, but I’m thinking about calling it off this year and forever. Am I overreacting or being smart? Are there any traveling non-animal circuses that I should keep an eye for?

Selma, Chandler, Ariz.

A: Hey Selma,

Glad you liked “Water for Elephants.” I’m not one for circus-themed historical romances, but I’m sure it was refreshing to see a more flush-cheeked, non-fanged Mr. Pattinson not running around the backwoods of Washington state.

After watching the film, I don’t think the impulse to stop taking your kids to the circus is overreacting (although I doubt it was the film producers’ intention), but this is also a difficult question to provide a definite “yes” or “no” answer for because it’s so subjective. It all comes down to what you define as animal abuse and not where an advice columnist with a mild case of coulrophobia or an over-the-top, exploitative organization like PETA (hello again, subjectivity) draws the line.

Do you define it as the flagrant mistreatment of captive animals (i.e. causing them physical harm to induce pain)? Or does your definition span much wider to include zoo animals and carefully trained and transported wild animals featured in films like “Water for Elephants” where abuse is depicted but not actually performed? Is every wild animal, be it a lion, a tiger or a bear, living in captivity, no matter what the situation, being abused? Just a few circus peanuts for thought ...

Personally, I’m not hot on circuses and it’s not just because of the clowns. As a kid, my parents didn’t do circuses too often and I’m thankful for this. The very thought of going to one now stresses me out. However, in my younger years my father did occasionally take me to the B&I;, an infamous circus-themed discount shopping center (yes, you read that correctly) that can only be described as an arcade/waterslide park/strip mall with a wig outlet as an anchor store. And true to the store’s circus motif, from 1964 to 1994, the B&I; was home to Ivan, an endangered lowland gorilla. I vaguely remember seeing Ivan, who lived alone in what the Tacoma News Tribune refers to as a “$60,000 state-of-the-art habitat” (I remember it as being more like a cell), and not feeling particularly excited or thrilled or curious. Just sad. Here was a wild animal in the prime of his life, living in a confined area in a slightly seedy circus-themed shopping center in Lakewood, Wash.* I was also confused as there was also a pet store at the B&I;, not too far from Ivan’s habitat, where other captive animals of the domestic sort were living in confined areas.

This isn’t to say that being exposed to a 300-pound gorilla in the, ahem, wig store sparked something deep inside of me that led to a life of animal activism, but it’s an experience that I return to when I think of circuses and the animals that “work” in them. In fact, I think of Ivan — who, to be clear, was not a performing animal — when I think of any wild animal that’s living in its natural environment, a wildlife sanctuary or a well-maintained/funded zoo. Would I have taken my children to see Ivan the Gorilla? No. Would I take my children to the real Big Top? Absolutely not. But that’s just me.

And the decision about taking your kids to the circus should be solely yours, since I’m not going to tell you that the circus — whether it’s the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey or a smaller operation — is an evil institution that you shouldn’t support. And I’m not going to delve in the lawsuits, allegations and horror stories surrounding the treatment of circus animals. There’s plenty of saddening, shocking information out there, if you choose to seek it out. (Much of it has come to light in the wake of a tragic 1994 incident involving a rogue elephant at a circus in Hawaii.)

Since you asked, I will point out a few good circuses where the only animals performing tricks are of the homo sapiens variety. Quebec’s Cirque de Soleil is the biggie here, while the newer, also-Montreal-based Cirque Éloize is also a popular choice. For animal-free circuses, three-ringed and not, that don’t entail limber French Canadians flying through the air, there’s San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, Great American Circus, Circus Vargas and The Moscow State Circus which — since it’s a family show —does not involve a vodka-guzzling, tightrope-walking clown named Sergey.

I’m guessing it won’t be long until all circuses are free of dancing bears and tigers jumping through hoops of fire. Circuses with performing animals are a dying breed as numerous municipalities and even entire countries enact bans and restrictions. Taking a cue from countries like Bolivia, Singapore and Croatia, China and the U.K. have recently proposed or enacted restrictions on performing circus animals. This is fantastic news in my humble opinion, although I do have slight reservation: I fear that more clowns will be brought in to replace the animals. Buy hey, you can’t shackle, prod or poke a clown. Bring ‘em on.

Thanks to tireless campaigning by animal rights group PAWS, Ivan is spending his golden years amongst other gorillas (he even has a special ladyfriend) at Zoo Atlanta and not in a confined habitat at a Tacoma, Wash., discount shopping mall.