Elephants escape circus: Parents can't escape animal issues

Elephants escape circus in St. Louis, reminding some parents that the childhood joys of seeing the circus have to be balanced with a respect for the elephants that are trained to entertain.

Screenshot from KCTV-TV
Elephants escape circus: This image shows three elephants who escaped from their holdings at the Moolah Shrine Circus, then went on a 45-minute walk around the parking lot before being corralled by their handlers.

Three circus elephants in St. Louis either went for a “stroll” or a “rampage,” depending on which news outlet you follow, leaving in their wake scores of parents in conflict over how to reconcile childhood wonder with adult concerns.

Talk about the parenting elephant in the room. The decision to take your child to the circus or zoo has become a political battleground where kids can be the casualties.

For the record, the incident in the news today, according to CNN it was “a stroll” taken by three elephants from the Moolah Shrine Circus through the parking lot of the Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo., after being “spooked” by loud noises.

“But the three only made it to the parking lot, where they dinged two cars and were eventually rounded up by their handlers,” Dennis Burkholder, spokesman for St. Louis' Shriners, told CNN.

My son Quin, 10, was less worried about elephant stampede than solving the grammatical poser, “If the people whose cars got damaged had Elephant Auto Insurance is that technically irony?”

However, car insurance and whether or not an elephant walked or ran away from a circus is peanuts compared to the conflict over taking a child to a circus at all.

I have stomped all over these issues over the past 10 years since moving to Norfolk, Va., where PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – is headquartered, and elephants also walk through the city when the circus comes to town each year.

Six years ago, my sons and I went to watch Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ elephants “stroll” through from the Norfolk Southern Railway yards to the Scope Center here in Norfolk. 

This is an annual occurrence in Norfolk that still goes on to this day, to the delight of children, and the horror of PETA.

While the circus and elephants are two of the greatest wonders of childhood, parents like me may be deeply conflicted as we try to reconcile traditional childhood experiences with being politically correct in view of alleged atrocities against circus animals.

We watch “Dumbo” and “Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted” with the kids, and then see PETA people dressed as elephants in shackles outside the circus entrance, leaving us to strike a balance for our kids.

Because these two opposing sides are in our town, my kids have learned all about alleged animal cruelty to circus animals and we have never, ever attended a circus as a result.

As the mom of four boys, I had to reconcile the fact that my kids wanted to see what I myself had enjoyed as a child in New York City and what most other kids in Norfolk had seen – a Ringling Bros. elephant parade.

When my father took me to the circus, he took me deep into the bowels of Madison Square Garden to see the elephants in a dimly lit, crowded space.

I remember being petrified by seeing these huge creatures so close up in tight quarters with the miasma of smells.

It was not an experience I wanted for my kids when I grew up. Like the fabled elephant who never forgets, I was unable to ditch that childhood memory.

Therefore, six years ago, when my boys were little, I found a way for my sons to see the elephants in a way that would be in the wide open air and largely avoid angry protestors lining the route.

I found my compromise by asking the folks at Norfolk Southern Railway if they would allow me to take my sons, then ages 4, 9, 12, and 13, into the gated, protestor-free, train yard to see the elephants unloaded before the procession to Scope.

Norfolk Southern is great with requests from parents, and readily agreed.

We had an insider’s experience, seeing the elephants, treated with love and care on that occasion, as they made their exit from the circus train.

The pachyderms lined-up with their massive bums facing us (to the delight of the kids) and then turn to form a procession.

Trunk grasped tail in a long line reminiscent of kids in pre-K walking down a school hallway.

I can tell you it is breathtaking from both the cannonball-sized remnants they drop, to the wow-factor of seeing something as big as a house turn on a dime and stroll on by.

Today, I asked my sons, if they remember the time we went to see the elephants – each one burst into a huge grin.

They all remember that day as one of the great ones.

They also fondly recall the biggest poop they’d ever seen – poop being the Holy Grail of boyhood.

“I remember the moment their trunks came through the door grasping and sniffing around kinda like a dog in a new house,” said my oldest, Zoltan. “And the massive piles of… guano.”

As parents we must sometimes make peace with things of which we don’t approve of, from music selections made by teens to politically incorrect traditional experiences of childhood.

Frankly, I find it best to educate my kids, show them both sides of an issue and then give them the opportunity to make good decisions on their own.

By seeing the elephants behind the scenes my kids gained an appreciation for the majesty of these animals, living their lives in captivity.

Like the elephants, they will never forget the wonder of the unadorned animals they saw, just as I can’t forget the dazzling lights and show magic of the circus I saw with my dad as a kid.

The fact that you can’t get one of those experiences without the existence of the other is a Catch-22 with which all parents have to deal.

Every parent has to make the choice in this gray area, but in my experience, if you have a choice between elephant in your child’s day or no elephant, put the elephant into the room as a conversation piece.

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