07/29/2009 05:48 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Vegan Living: No Joke - Letterman Knows Circuses Aren't for Animals

As the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus marched into Manhattan this week, I was reminded that vegan living is not only about making animal-friendly decisions when it comes to food and clothing, but entertainment as well. And circuses with animal "performers" do not fit the vegan bill.

David Letterman showed that he gets it on Wednesday night when he referred to going to the circus as "watching animal abuse."

I went to the circus as a child and never once considered what the animal trainers had to do to coerce the elephants into standing in a conga line on small, un-elephant size platforms or how strange it was for tigers to be hopping on their back two feet toward a man in sequins. Most people who go to the circus are similar - they just don't think about it. But it's time to admit to ourselves that animals are suffering for our entertainment.

The animals used in circuses are forced to spend their lives traveling and living in cramped, barren cages. They perform unnatural and sometimes painful tricks, taught to them by trainers who use bullhooks and other objects to poke, prod, strike, shock, and hit them. PeTA's undercover team caught trainers at Carson and Barnes Circus teaching elephants new tricks with the help of electric prods, while one trainer encouraged the other trainers to "Sink that hook into 'em, when you hear that screaming, then you know you got their attention!"

When not performing, the animals stay in dirty enclosures or are chained in one position for hours and are isolated from other members of their species. An animal in a circus is completely removed from all that is familiar and comfortable to him, and his misery is all for the sake of entertaining humans. The stress of these abusive conditions is what causes animals to attack their trainers or escape, wandering the streets and creating a dangerous situation for both the animal and any people in the area.

You can take a stand against this cruelty and still see an exciting show. There are lots of circuses with high-flying acrobats, death-defying tightrope walkers, goofy clowns stuffed into a car and not a zebra or lion on the premises. Cirque du Soleil is probably the best known circus in this genre, but there are others that travel the country. And maybe you'll see David Letterman and his family in the audience.