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By the Circus Animal Team
Pace Environmental Policy Clinic

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Note: This week, our students from the Pace Environmental Policy Clinic launched their ePolicy blog, featuring news and updates on their docket of cases. The article below, by the Clinic’s Circus Animal Team, is reposted from ePolicy. It pulls aside the curtain on the ethical and political dimensions of the circus business in New York State: the torture necessary to make exotic animals entertaining and the law that could end it. — John Cronin

In 1805, Hachaliah Bailey, a farmer from Somers, New York, acquired an elephant, one of the first elephants to enter the United States. He named her Old Bet, and visitors flocked from all around to see the remarkable animal.

Eventually, a distant relative of Bailey teamed up with New York City showman P.T. Barnum. The modern-day ring-and-whip American circus was born.

Today New Yorkers can play a role in retaining the magic of the circus while keeping exotic animals out of the ring. Two bills have been introduced — Assembly A5407 and Senate S5971 — that would effectively ban traveling circuses that use exotic animals from entering the state.

The rationale? There is simply no way to train a wild animal for life in a traveling circus without cruelty, often from time the animal is a juvenile. In essence, the only tamed elephant is a tortured elephant.

Michelle Land, a Pace environmental law and policy professor and director of the Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, laid out the case for concern in detail in a compelling 2012 brief, “The Elephant in the Room.” We encourage you to read the full essay, but here’s a particularly compelling point:

Circuses force animals to perform acts that have nothing to do with how they behave in the wild. For example, the difficult tricks that elephants must perform, such as standing on two legs, sitting on tubs, or waving their trunks, place a great deal of stress on their muscles and joints. Elephant experts and veterinarians agree that elephants will not voluntarily perform these physically taxing and painful maneuvers on command, over and over, hundreds of times a year without the constant threat of punishment. No form of positive reinforcement alone will elicit such unnatural behaviors.

A baby elephant in the circus is bound and beaten; a wild baby elephant plays happily in the mud (credit:

Exotic animals, including elephants, cannot live safe and healthy lives if they are forced to travel in small train cars for months out of the year. These are large, beautiful and dangerous animals held in check with the threat of pain from bullhooks used by trainers in all circuses.

Pace Law School Professor David Cassuto posted recently on the legal context:

Asian elephants are endangered. Elephants in circuses are brutally mistreated. In 2000, a lawsuit was brought under the Endangered Species Act, claiming that the elephants’ treatment by Feld Entertainment (parent of Ringling Brothers) violated the “No Take” provision of the ESA and should be enjoined. In late 2009, following a lengthy litigation, a judge threw out the case after deciding that the former circus worker who was the lead plaintiff lacked credibility, was paid for his testimony, and that there was therefore no standing for the plaintiffs to sue. The decision was a travesty on many levels (some of which I’ve blogged about elsewhere). Perhaps most disturbing was the fact that the treatment of the elephants became wholly ancillary to a ridiculous debate about people.

The circus industry sometimes shows photos of elephants doing circus-like movements in the wild, but that does not make the training acceptable. There are no bullhooks, whips, and cages in the wild. The abuse must stop.

On its website, Ringling Brothers says it opposes local legislation banning animal acts:

We believe that these bans are unnecessary and take away a treasured part of the circus experience that patrons tell us they support and love. (Fortunately, such communities are the exception, not the rule.) By banning performing animals, the town is effectively saying that our experts are not fit to handle the animals they have devoted their lives to caring for. We can’t say it enough: Ringling Bros. loves animals as much as you do!

We respectfully disagree.

The traditional American circus started in New York. Now, New York must work to create an even grander circus: One not tarnished by suffering but instead uplifted with wonder.

There are plenty of examples, including the Cirque de Soleil and Big Apple Circus that have found ways to draw big audiences without exotic animals.

Make New York a safer, kinder place. End the movement of exotic animals within our borders and reward those circuses that amaze us with cruelty-free shows. Let’s truly make it the Greatest Show on Earth.

Please contact your representative in the New York State Assembly (locator) and Senate (locator) and say you care about this issue and these bills.

A goal of the Circus Animal Team is to help advance this legislation and maintain the integrity of circuses in New York.

Please track our Twitter account for updates!