An elephant collapsed shortly after performing at a Ringling Bros. Circus on Aug. 7 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Sarah, a 54-year-old Asian elephant, was boarding a rail car when she collapsed. As a spiritual leader deeply committed to the welfare of animals, the news of the elephants collapse immediately brought up not only issues about exploitation and mistreatment of performance animals, but the simple question of whether this type of entertainment is "kosher."
Elephants, lions, tigers, horses, bears and other animals are used across the world for entertainment. These extravagant animal acts at the circus seem like an age-old tradition that has been part of the fabric of society for eons. In many cultures, including ours, the circus is a rite of passage of childhood. However, until recently, I had not considered a Jewish perspective on circuses.
Just a few days before Sarah collapsed, I bumped into my friend Ady Gil at a local event. Almost immediately, Ady began telling me of his efforts that week to protest the local performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Baily Circus. Just days before her collapse, Adi and more than 600 protesters had turned out in Los Angeles to protest the treatment of circus animals.
Ady is a world-famous activist who brings a unique person-to-person approach to environmental activism. He believes that the best way to get people to change is through education, to engage them in conversations, show them films and discuss alternatives with them. From rare eagles in Israel to whales in the South Pacific and puppies in North America, Ady is a protector of those without a voice.
Ady wasn't always a prominent, full-time activist. Ady, Israeli by birth, created a very successful niche production company that works on virtually every major awards show on television including The Grammy Awards and The Emmys, as well as talk shows including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Dr. Phil and Jimmy Kimmel Live. However, production is not as close to his heart as the animals and so Ady sold most of his business, retiring from the world of show biz, to devote his time and resources to his passion: protecting animals.
The bad news about animal use in circuses, Adi explained to me for the first time, is that the animals are frequently subjected to abuse and neglect as they are trained, housed and transported. If this is the case, the question of whether the circus is kosher or not is not simply academic. Circuses may be transgressing the Jewish edict of tzaar ba'alei chaim, the commandment to avoid inflicting gratuitous pain on animals.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 32-33) indicates that tzaar ba'alei chaim is prohibited by the Torah explicitly. According to Rabbi Howard Jachter, the Torah expresses its concern for tzaar ba'alei chaim many times. For example, "the mitzvah to unload a donkey from its heavy load, the prohibition to muzzle an animal while it is threshing, the prohibition to plow with two different types of animals ... are a few examples of expressions in the Torah that we not harm an animal needlessly." The same laws form the basis of the prohibition on recreational hunting,
If circuses are not kosher, what can be done?
Adi believes that one of the ways we can do something about the fate of these animals is simply to not support circuses that have animal acts. While this may sound like a bummer, most kids would be upset if they learned that animals can be mistreated as part of the training and performance regimen. The use of animals for the circus is certainly unnecessary to create a marvelous experience. Consider that the most popular circus company in the world, Cirque Du Soleil, creates memorable, incredible circus performances without the use of live animals.
The collapse of an unhealthy elephant at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus performance -- after the USDA cited Ringling Bros. for failing to adequately treat Sarah and give her rest -- proves that the issue of animal mistreatment is not a wild claim made by extreme animal rights activists. This incident follows a string of citations and other problems with the treatment of animals that are used in circus performances, which have included unsafe conditions during travel, exhaustion and issues in training.
If you think that these circuses are not kosher, you may want to consider another family activity. Without an audience, animal-centered circuses will not be profitable, and they will forgo these acts or fold altogether. What will be done with the animals who cannot be returned to the wild? These unwanted circus animals can be adopted by animal sanctuaries and live out the rest of their lives with adequate space and care.
And keep your eyes open: Adi has purchased billboards and driven mobile advertising trucks to educate the public about the circus.
Follow Rabbi Yonah Bookstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RabbiYonah