OP-ED: It's the end of the road for animal acts

Jennifer O'Connor
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Pinder circus director and big cat tamer Frederic Edelstein, center, speaks to the press surrounded by protesters holding signs reading "I am happy at the circus, leave me with my family" during a gathering of circus professionals after the French government announced it planned to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses on Oct. 6, 2020, in Paris. France said on September 29 it planned to "gradually" ban mink farms as well the use of wild animals in travelling circuses and dolphins and orcas in theme parks. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

England has done it. Mexico, too. Now France has banned the use of wild animals in traveling circuses. Countries all over the world are enacting strong laws to protect animals from harm in traveling shows. So why is the United States still lagging so far behind?

The trend is undeniable: The days of hurting animals in the name of entertainment are coming to an end. Austria, Bolivia, Columbia, Greece, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Paraguay, Peru and many other countries put an end to the madness long ago. Other municipalities have legislation pending.

If ethical considerations alone are not reason enough for a ban (and why shouldn't they be?), public sentiment may get the job done. After 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus admitted a public "mood shift" was part of the reason why it ceased operation. The Cole Bros. Circus also went dark, as did Circus Pages. And the Big Apple Circus filed for bankruptcy. But before the lockdown, the Ramos Bros. Circus drew large crowds despite having eliminated all wild-animal acts. And the owners of Circus Vargas dropped animal acts, saying, "We felt the time was coming for a change."

Although they are becoming as rare as a civil debate, there are still some exhibitors hauling elephants, tigers, camels, sea lions, sharks and other animals around the country. Being relegated to transport cages, chains, cramped pens and tiny pools is a miserable existence for wild and exotic animals. Captivity doesn't repress their fundamental need to roam or swim free, seek out a mate or make autonomous choices.

The public's outlook on the gratuitous exploitation of animals has significantly evolved in recent years. It is now widely accepted that animals aren't "things" to dominate but rather living, feeling beings with families, interests, emotions and intelligence — even dialects. As this mindset begins to coalesce throughout society, we will look back with shame for once having used animals as entertainment props.

The laws must evolve to reflect this attitude: Animals should be given a wide array of legal protections beyond the state anti-cruelty laws and Animal Welfare Act regulations that now afford them minimal safeguards from harm. Using animals in circuses and traveling shows must be banned at the federal level.

As Founding Father Thomas Jefferson said, "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times."

The time is long overdue for U.S. legislators to move forward into a future in which animals are not hurt or killed for human pleasures, pastimes and pursuits.

— Jennifer O'Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation.