Animal-rights activists are sending a message to the circus industry: Send in the clowns - not the elephants and other exotic animals.
In city councils from Washington State to Washington, D.C., and in the US Congress, measures aimed at banning the use of elephants and exotic animals are springing up as the new circus season gets under way.
The big top has become the battleground for activists attempting to end a form of entertainment they claim is cruel to many performers. They paint a portrait of giant mammals kept locked away in small cages and crammed onto trains, forced - sometimes brutally- to perform unnatural acts. At a minimum, animal-rights groups say, this constitutes abuse. At worst, the conditions provoke volatile situations that have led to the deaths of both humans and animals.
Circuses maintain that their animals are well-treated, and are a main reason millions of Americans fill their bleachers each year. Deaths have been isolated, they say, and it's unfair to penalize an entire industry for a few abuses. Besides which, they argue, circuses are already regulated by the federal government.
It's an issue that touches everyone with childhood memories of munching cotton candy as the elephants trumpeted and tigers jumped through hoops. From "Toby Tyler" to "Dumbo," circuses have been a tradition for a century - and it's unclear if Americans are ready to give them up.
"Surveys conducted by Shrine and Ringling show animals rank in the 90th percentile for reasons to come to the circus," says Heidi Herriott, the circus representative for the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, a trade organization representing circuses.
At any given time during the circus season, which generally runs from April to October, about 100 circuses are in operation, Ms. Herriott estimates. Seventy percent of these traveling shows include animals in their acts, including 200 to 250 elephants.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses alone estimate that 10 million spectators come to see their performing animals in 90 cities across the nation.
A number of newer circuses, such as Cirque de Soleil and Feld's Kaleidoscope, eschew dancing bears for high-flying acrobatics.
But efforts to keep the show from going on, ringmasters say, are not coming from a grass-roots group of concerned citizens, but instead from a well-financed national campaign of animal-rights activists.
"At the heart and soul of it is an ideological difference of opinion," says Joan Galvin, a spokeswoman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. "What you have is an animal-rights movement that wants to erode the public's right to interact with animals."
The animal-free entertainment message is catching on in a handful of municipalities. Takoma Park, Md., Hollywood, Fla., and Stamford, Conn., have banned elephants or exotic animals.
Now some major cities are considering bans, including Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Detroit. But just because a ban is proposed does not mean it will be adopted. The Seattle City Council last month voted down a measure that would have banned exotic animal entertainment.
The city of Alexandria, Va., just outside Washington, will decide on a ban next fall, and will not grant any performance permits until then.
City officials are studying the risk and potential for danger to the community in the event of a rampage.
Animal-rights activists point to two highly publicized elephant rampages, one in Florida in 1992, and another in Hawaii. In both cases, the rampages were brought to an end in a hail of gunfire.
Moreover, animal-rights activists say, there's no such thing as an "elephant whisperer."
The training involved in making a four-ton elephant stand on its front legs, or in teaching a bear to ride on the back of a horse, comes through harsh negative techniques, including beatings, they say.
"I can't keep my cat from jumping on the living room table - there is no way to get a tiger to jump through fire without abusing it, it defies logic," says Marianne Merritt, a Washington-area attorney who supports the Alexandria ban.
"It's going to take a little while to educate the public about the hidden lives of these animals," says Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States.
"Once the public understands these animals are abused with training techniques and do have miserable lives in transport and inadequate housing, I think most fair-minded people will take a second look and hopefully vote with their dollars," Mr. Pacelle adds.
In the US Congress, Rep. Sam Farr (D) of California has sponsored legislation banning the interstate transport of elephants as well as elephant rides. Hearings on the Captive Elephant Accident Prevention Act are likely by May.
"We've reached a critical mass on tragic incidents where innocent spectators are killed, some of them children, when elephants lose control," Representative Farr says.
Circus officials say they are eager for hearings to set the record straight.
"In the last century, not a single spectator has been killed," says Herriott.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society