It's that time of year again. You know the end of summer is drawing near when you start seeing signs staked in the ground around town advertising the coming of the Cole Bros. Circus. The Circus of The Stars.
The Cole Bros. Circus, who boast they are the largest circus under the big top, has been rolling into Cape May County for as long as I can remember. I've been to the circus a number of times in my life, most recently this time last year when The Cole Bros Circus came to Rio Grande and I brought my boys to see it for the second year in a row.
We had a fun family night the year prior and were looking forward to the boys being a little older and a little better able to appreciate and enjoy the circus experience more.
What ended up happening took me completely off guard.
I started to feel really uncomfortable and not because of the heat and the stench. I started to realize that what we were watching wasn't entertaining at all. It was unnatural. And wrong.
I should tell you that while I love animals and believe they should be treated with love and respect, I'm not some big animal rights activist. True, I don't wear fur, not because of the death of animals, but because I cant' afford fur. I enjoy a good hamburger. I don't read the label of my shampoo to ensure it wasn't tested on rabbits. When I think of animal neglect and abuse I think mostly of house pets, dogs and cats.
This was not my first time to the circus, but it was the first time I had given any real thought as to what was going on in front of me. They brought out a dozen or so tigers in tiny cages and I sat there and thought, "This is just wrong. An animal of that magnitude doesn't belong in a cage, let alone a cage that small." When it was time for the tigers to leave their respective cages, a circus hand used a long stick to poke the animal on the back side to signal it to move. If it didn't move, it was poked again.
We watched as the tigers made their rounds, jumping up here, standing there. Each time a tiger hesitated, didn't do what it was supposed to do at the exact time it was supposed to do it, someone cracked a whip near it. Or poked it with a stick. Stacking tiger on top of tiger.
I started wondering what it would take to train a huge, powerful animal like a tiger to stand on another tigers shoulders and then let another tiger stand on it's shoulders.
It became pretty clear that there was probably more going on behind the scenes than cracking a whip in the tigers direction or giving them a nudge with a stick.
When they lit the ring of fire is when I really lost it. I watched the first of these magnificent wild creatures back away from the fire...and as soon as it did, someone cracked the whip. The tiger approached the ring again and then backed away again. Finally it jumped through.
There's a reason for this: Animals, by instinct, are afraid of fire.
It occurred to me how wrong it was for all of us to be sitting there watching tigers jump through fire and be entertained by it. It suddenly felt wrong and weird and unnatural.
If my neighbors were in their backyard, "training" their dog to jump through a ring of fire, I would not be okay with it, why should I be okay with it happening with another animal? I shouldn't. That's what I decided right then and there. I shouldn't be and I wouldn't be and we left.
Bears don't ride bikes, elephants don't go around balancing on one leg and tigers don't jump through rings of fire for shits and giggles. It just isn't right. And that isn't taking into consideration the training process used in order to achieve these results for performance or the traveling and living conditions these animals endure.
Trainers often use whips, bullhooks, electric prods and other painful tools to force animals to "learn" tricks. When animals are not performing (which is the majority of the time, between shows and traveling between venues), they're kept in cramped cages with little monitoring.
We won't be going to the circus this year. Or ever again. Like any Mom, I want to raise my kids to be strong, confident and compassionate. I want them to understand that the choices we make affect others in profound ways. I want them to understand that it's never okay to harm (or support others who harm) those who are defenseless. I want to raise my kids to have respect, for themselves, for other people and for animals.
If I want my kids to see some unnatural and just plain wrong things, we'll sit outside the Villas Wawa for awhile. Now that's entertainment!
My hope is that at least one other mother will be sitting in the crowd tomorrow night and suddenly realize the circus isn't where she wants her family to be. I'm glad it happened to me.