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From Ringling Bros. to Sea World, Americans stand up for animals (+video)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's decision to end elephant performances in response to consumer pressure is the latest evidence of a sea change in how Americans view animals.

In the wake of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey decision to retire its circus elephants by 2018 and Sea World’s announcement that it will double the size of its whale pens, many observers say a deep-seated shift in public attitudes toward animals is underway – and having an impact.

From the circus to the grocery store, Americans are increasingly using their wallets to protest what they view as unfair treatment of animals. The heightened consumer pressure comes amid a shift in understanding among scientists and the general public about animals' level of consciousness. 

“There is a sea change going on in our culture about animals and we are coming to recognize the profound depth of animal emotion and thinking and suffering,” says Barbara King, anthropology professor at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and author of “How Animals Grieve.”

While these recent changes in the treatment of animals for entertainment purposes are due in part to public activism by such advocacy groups as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and others, the growing body of scientific research on animal intelligence has been crucially important, says Professor King. “The science and activism are beginning to come together to support changes,” she says.

King points to such important scientific milestones as the July 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. An international consortium of scientists affirmed support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the same degree as humans. The list includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus.

“This research is beginning to trickle down into the public awareness and driving public outcry,” says King, adding that this includes protests about the treatment of animals in entertainment such as the circus, film, and television, as well as the use of animals for food and clothing.

Societal attitudes towards animals are changing across the board, agrees Sarah Cunningham, a professor in the Captive Wildlife Care and Education program at Unity College in Maine. Ironically, though, she points out that “part of the reason they are changing is because we’ve learned so much about the cognitive abilities and social lives of other species from individuals that we work with and study in captivity.”  

Ringling Bros. management noted that change in its explanations for the decision. “There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” said Alana Feld, executive vice president for Feld Entertainment, the circus’s parent company, in widely published comments about the decision. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

Part of the shifting mood is “a growing reluctance to support the cruelty involved in using elephants for entertainment purposes,” says Lori Gruen, professor of philosophy and coordinator of Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University in an e-mail.

“There is also a growing public aversion to the indignity and coercion of displaying these magnificent, endangered creatures as silly spectacles,” she adds.

This change in public attitude can also be seen in protests against using chimpanzees in Super Bowl commercials and movies, for example, notes Professor Gruen, adding that increasingly “people are reflecting on our relationships with other animals and realizing that these relationships usually are not good ones. As a result of this recognition, people are empathizing more with the plight of those animals,” she adds.

Some 25 percent of Americans say animals deserve the same rights as humans, while almost all of the rest agree that animals should be given some protection from harm and exploitation, according to Gallup's Values and Beliefs survey in 2008 – the last time the pollster posed the question. As an indicator of a particular subset of public attitudes toward human treatment of animals in captivity, the 2014 survey indicated a growing sensitivity to the use of animals in medical testing. 

The decision to pull elephants from the big top is as practical as much as ethical, however. It follows bans on circus elephants in one United States city after another, such as Oakland and Los Angeles. A nationwide ban on the use of any wildlife in circuses will go into effect in Mexico this July.

Whether it is pigs in factory farms, dogs and cats in shelters, primates in medical research contexts, and even conservation of wild animals, “public pressure is now mounting to protect animals in a range of contexts,” says Charles Camosy, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York. This is accelerating with a younger generation, he points out because of the pervasive power of the digital age.

“The Internet has made the terrible things we do to animals a reality to them in ways that older generations never experienced as children. The future is definitely pro-animal,” he says.

Ringling Bros. decided to pull its 13 touring elephants rather than spend money to contest local bans, according to published statements from the company. The retiring pachyderms will move to the parent company Feld Entertainment’s 200-acre conservation center in Florida by 2018.

Sea World was battered by the 2013, scathingly critical documentary, “Blackfish,” accusing the company of multiple violations and animal abuse. The company saw a 6 percent revenue decline in 2014 as well as falling attendance and stock prices. Sea World has announced that it would double the size of the holding tank for its orca whales and plans to launch a “reputational” campaign in April to attempt to change public attitudes toward the park and its treatment of animals. 

Not everyone agrees with bans on animals for entertainment purposes.

Some proponents suggest that bans are “evidence of how our political correctness epidemic has now moved beyond humans to the animal kingdom,” says Beverly Hills psychiatrist, Carole Lieberman. She says she has ridden elephants on safari in Africa and respects their intelligence, but says people should not be deprived of the opportunity to encounter the real thing.

“While it is noble to bring attention to improving the living conditions of all animals – from circuses to Sea World, “to intimidate owners into political correctness, and deprive us of the beauty of these beasts, is simply misguided, selfish and wrong,” says Dr. Lieberman.

Change in the entertainment world may come more quickly than other venues. Ridding our culture of the use of animals would mean a drastic change for most people, points out Angela Mertig, sociology professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

"Such fundamental change is scary," she says in an email. "This is probably why we see many changes occurring in entertainment venues but only limited change in venues involving animals used for food, clothing, and other products.”

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