Don't Celebrate Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Elephant "Victory"

March 23, 2015
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A couple of weeks ago the world’s biggest circuses – Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey – announced plans to end their iconic elephant performances by 2018. Animal welfare groups and the public alike have praised the move as an “historic” and “groundbreaking” “victory” for elephants and, indeed, for animals more generally.

I hate to be the ghost at the feast, but I’ve got to say it: the Ringling “victory” is no cause for celebration.

Why?

Well, firstly, it doesn’t actually improve much for elephants.

While Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey will eventually – in three years – no longer feature elephants in their own circuses, Feld (the holding company for both) will continue to operate its notorious “Center for Elephant Conservation” in Florida after this date. The center, which has been repeatedly criticized for treating animals poorly,  has two key purposes: one, to train both elephants and the handlers who deal with them in captivity (in zoos or circuses) and, two, to loan out trained elephants and provide their sperm to zoos. Elephants who retire to the Center will thus not only be subjected to the Feld approach to elephant “care” – which includes the routine “corrective” use of bullhooks, whips, and electric prods – but continue to be exploited for human entertainment, albeit in different places.

Secondly, the “retirement” of the Feld elephants actually worsens the outlook for other animals. Ringling and Barnum and Bailey will still exploit other species in their circus performances, including lions, tigers, dogs, horses, goats, and camels. In fact, it seems like they’re actually set to use even more of these animals. Case in point: shortly before breaking the news about their elephants, Ringling and Barnum and Bailey proudly announced their acquisition of a new troupe of Mongolian camel stunt riders.

What the retirement of the Feld elephants does accomplish, therefore, is to further entrench the arbitrary human categorization of certain animals as less or more deserving of protection – in other words, speciesism. Celebrating the Feld “victory” singles out elephants as being especially worthy of a life free from exploitation and from harm, when the reality is that all animals are deserving of such a life. We judge and celebrate elephants for the intelligent, majestic, incredible creatures that they indeed are (although even that judgement is not in this case enough to spare them from exploitation); but we simultaneously forget or ignore the inherent moral value of other animals like camels, goats, and horses. It’s this carnistic system of thought, of categorization of “protect” versus “use,” which sustains and justifies all forms of animal exploitation, from the circus to the slaughterhouse. It’s this system of thought which leads people to advocate compassionately for animals like elephants and orcas, but to not even consider extending the circle of their compassion to “food” or “clothing” animals.

And that’s why it doesn’t make sense to celebrate the Ringling “victory” – because it’s not a victory. It’s not a victory for the animals not lucky enough to capture the public’s imagination, for the lions, tigers, dogs, horses, goats, and camels who will still be made to perform in Ringling and Barnum and Bailey Circuses. It is not a victory for the billions of animals used every single year for food and clothing. This is not even a victory for elephants, who will still be exploited, confined, and harmed for entertainment. This is not a victory for any animal, including humans. Presenting it as as such is not only misleading in a practical sense, but also deeply damaging to the wider vegan movement, because it works directly contrary to most central premises of veganism: that life, in all its forms, is inherently valuable, and that humans have no claim to animals and their lives.

So please, don’t celebrate the retirement of the Feld elephants. If you’ve already posted about it – post again with a new spin. Work hard to educate others on the unequivocal, inherent moral value of all animals; of their right to lives free from human exploitation. Getting people to see those things – now that’s what I call a victory.

Photo: Dirkjan Razijin Photography via Flickr

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