07/05/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Circus: Saddest Show on Earth?

My kids and I recently went to the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus at New Jersey's Izod Center. I can't remember the last time I'd been to the circus - possibly never - but we all know what to expect: elephants, tigers, trapeze artists, overpriced souvenirs, sticky seats, cotton candy, and creepy, antiquated clowns.

One thing I didn't expect when we showed up at the enormous arena was a group of anti-circus protesters, shouting gory details of animal torture and holding crude signs.


There were only a handful of them, corralled in a yellow, iron-gated playpen (normally reserved for rabid Miley Cyrus and Jonas Brothers fans), but their point was compelling, especially when I had to explain it to my five year-old daughter.

"Why are those people mad?" she asked.

"They're saying it's cruel to train animals to perform for humans."


"Well, it's not natural for animals to act this way, so they have to convince them by..."

Jack Bauer came to mind.

"Sometimes the training hurts."

This was enough information for all three of my kids to take a strong stance against the circus, but I said it was important to see what it's all about. In truth, I was thinking more about our non-refundable tickets.

Animal cruelty aside -- and audience cruelty considered -- "The Greatest Show on Earth" was, to these grown-up eyes, a bit underwhelming. A few minutes into the show, the ringmaster belted out the national anthem as a bedazzled woman holding an American flag rode past us atop an elephant. I knew we were in for something incredibly, and perhaps annoyingly, over-the-top. In fact, "Over the Top" was the theme of the show, in which a head clown steals the hat of the ringmaster and...oh, never mind.

It took me a minute to acclimate myself to another disturbing truth: this was a world without irony, and we wouldn't be leaving anytime soon.

Clowns lumbered out and engaged in overloud, overlong skits that had all the sophistication and humor of the hokey-pokey. Contrary to my hopes, nothing about the clowns mitigated the impact of their creepy alter egos that populate our nightmares and phobias.

There were some incredible, daring feats to be sure: seven Paraguayan motorcyclists criss-crossing each other at full speed inside a steel sphere, triple-somersaulting trapeze artists, Chinese acrobats, and powerful Russian gymnasts. But the comic segments were painfully slow and dumb, the songs were excruciatingly antiquated and cheesy, and the gorgeous tigers and snow-white horses in particular seemed decidedly unhappy about being prodded with an electro-whip.

Looking resigned to their fate, the elephants paraded majestically tail-to-trunk around the ring. Occasionally they sat back and raised their legs like poodles and did other completely unnatural things. In fact all of the animals -- snow white horses, gorgeous tigers, rat-sized dogs -- were trained to disregard their natural animal instincts in order to make them seem as lovable as their stuffed counterparts at the concession stand.

PETA's anti-circus site puts it this way:

The fact is, animals do not naturally ride bicycles, stand on their heads, balance on balls, or jump through rings of fire. To force them to perform these confusing and physically uncomfortable tricks, trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks, and other painful tools of the trade.

During intermission, I left the kids with my patient girlfriend and navigated my way through the masses to the snack pavilion. As I waited patiently to spend $10 on a box of popcorn and a bottle of water, it struck me that the animals weren't the only ones being trained. Complaining about the price of a Diet Coke would probably get me zapped with a cattle prod.

Back at our seats, the kids were fighting over who would sit next to whom, who just kicked whom, and why they weren't getting cotton candy. One of my daughters reached a tearful supernova.

"The next time you leave, bring your cell phone," my girlfriend begged me. I knew she was being polite; there wasn't going to be a "next time I leave."

On the way out, we saw the circus protesters arguing with police. Maybe the protesters should have been a little more creative in their tactics.

"Someone's always complaining about something," one man sneered to his wife, who looked back at him like she'd bitten back a complaint or two of her own in her day.

One protester yelled out, "Everyone is WATCHING!", but in fact, few people were paying attention at all. We were too busy being herding toward the parking structure, harnessing ourselves into our cars, and following the exit signs as directed.

This way? BZZZZZZZP! Ouch, no, this way.


But the protesters made an impact on me, enough to investigate further. Turns out the facts are pretty disturbing. A report by the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals details not just rampant abuse of circus animals, but also evidence that the USDA has looked the other way when it comes to circus animal mistreatment.

Ringling Bros. extols its own dedication to ethical animal handling in a document buried on their website, though it's weirdly short on details. Maybe because Ringling's history of past violations has a sizable lead in the details department.

The circus strongly encourages you to "just look for yourself" at the animals during the show to understand if they're being mistreated. That's like watching a Michael Jackson video to determine if he'll be a good babysitter. Considering one of the Meadowland Sports Center's biggest sponsors, Hebrew National, you'd think someone would be answering to a higher authority.

I'll probably steer myself and my family toward non-animal circuses in the future. All beasts deserve a free-to-roam home in their natural habitats, be it in a wildlife preserve, the jungle, or -- in the case of our cats -- the master bedroom.