NEW YORK — With the world in turmoil and the daily news filled with man's inhumanity to man, now seems a perfect time for lighthearted distraction. It's spring, and the circus is coming to town.
Clowns and popcorn seem the order of the day for my grandchildren, who are exposed to the tenor of grim TV news like everyone else.
Not so fast. Circuses aren't what they seem.
Long before they were born, I went on a safari to Kenya. That's when I saw my first elephant in the wild and I'll never forget it. Unlike the solitary circus elephant, on safari we saw them only in clusters - as a herd or family. Often there'd be a baby guarded by its mother. Our guide kept us at a distance, explaining that a female elephant could turn fierce if her young were threatened.
The vision of elephant families moving freely across the Kenyan plain is one I can't reconcile with what passes for entertainment in most circuses. No elephants sit on small stools or dance on hind legs in Africa, and how they are taught to do so is one issue that has driven more and more American towns - even some nations - to ban live animal acts.
People like me - who once enjoyed the circus hoopla, the very idea and excitement of tigers jumping through fire hoops - never questioned the means to those ends. But it's not what I thought. It's not a pat on an animal's head and peanuts that encourage an elephant to become an unpaid actor.
Carol Buckley, who now runs the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., worked in circuses for 15 years. She shelters emotionally disturbed and injured elephants who were mismanaged in captivity.
Circus elephants are often forced to endure extreme temperatures and travel long distances crammed in box cars - large circuses can travel up to 48 weeks of the year. Trainers sometimes withhold food and water to reduce untimely excrement during the shows.
Ms. Buckley says confined elephants, traditionally kept in place by chains holding a foreleg and diagonal rear leg, show signs of psychological stress by spending much of their time bobbing their heads or swaying side to side. Buckley confirms that elephants are universally mistreated, "managed by the use of force and intimidation, controlled by bullhooks or worse and used where they will cause the greatest pain."
Former animal trainers have admitted that muzzles, whips, electric prods, and even baseball bats are used to tame and train. Newly captured animals are tied down and beaten until they obey.
Bears may be muzzled, their noses broken, and paws burned to teach them to walk on their hind legs. Tigers have been burned jumping through those hoops of fire. Typically, when not performing, tigers are kept in cages with hardly room to turn around, where they eat, sleep, and defecate. When circus animals rebel for behaving as their true natures dictate, they are punished - occasionally shot and killed. When these animals are enslaved, forced through cruelty and intimidation to dance, ride bicycles, or perform other unnatural acts, is this a fit spectacle for my small grandchildren?
As a member of the highest species, I think it is our responsibility to show compassion toward creatures who are helpless. To stay away proves the better lesson for them: Even if they are "only animals," we know they think and suffer and mourn.
I don't want my grandchildren to see them as captives in a side show, tormented and brutalized into unnatural displays for our amusement. I want them to see the animals as I saw them in Africa - free, wild, and true to themselves, as nature intended them to be.
• Marlene Fanta Shyer is the author of 'The Rainbow Kite' (2002).