Elephants, tigers and other exotic animals may be symbolic of the circus in the public imagi-nation, but their presence in the performing arena has drawn the ire of numerous animal rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Spokanite Kelly Tansy is with PAWS now, and he has seen firsthand what happens to circus animals behind the scenes.
"I was a Ringling Brothers clown," he explains. "During my first week on the job with the circus, I saw an elephant brought backstage and beaten repeatedly. The elephant screamed, but the beating continued." The event left him shaken, but he stayed with the circus and kept his mouth shut despite his qualms. "Ringling Brothers makes it clear that if you talk to the press, you're gone," Tansy goes on. "I was 16 years old, just graduated from [Ringling Brothers'] Clown College after getting from Spokane to Florida, and this was my dream job, so I stayed focused on my career."
Eventually, Tansy says he could not ignore his qualms any longer. He left the circus and began his involvement with PAWS, a Lynnwood, Wash., animal advocacy organization. Tansy says PAWS was founded in 1967 and now claims more than 40,000 members. "Our goals here are to educate people about what happens to circus animals and to encourage the support of an animal-free and cruelty-free circus."
To that end, the group plans to be a presence at all of the circus performances in Spokane, but Tansy says the plan calls for a low-key approach. "We'll have about 20 people in clown costumes out there to give out educational brochures and flyers," he says, explaining that he finds this quieter approach more effective than picketing. "By the time people are there at the arena, they've already bought their tickets, and they don't want to be made uncomfortable about their decision."
For its part, Ringling Bros. has posted extensive information about its animal care practices and its affiliated Center for Elephant Conservation on the circus Web site (www.ringling.com). Like all circuses and zoos, Ringling Bros. must follow the regulations of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, under the auspices of the Animal Welfare Act. Compliance is enforced by USDA inspectors, who visit the circus regularly on its tour route. Information about recent complaints or inspection reports can be found at the USDA's Web site (www.aphis.usda.gov).
Ringling Bros. owner and producer Kenneth Feld told a National Public Radio reporter last week that he has no plans to remove the animals from the circus.
"I would never do away with the elephants," Feld insisted while describing how the circus is changing to keep up with contemporary tastes. "Nor would I do away with the flying trapeze acts or clowns. They're sort of the iconic emblems of what the Greatest Show On Earth is, but the way you present them can be very different."