I've always been a little torn about our love of the circus.
We go to see acrobats, tightrope walkers, giant bicycles, flying trapeze artists, silly clowns, strongmen, elaborate costumes, optical illusions and shooting flames. We go to feel the danger and the excitement as gravity is defied, for the glow-in-the-dark twirlers and plastic red noses, and to see the magnificent animals.
It's that last little part that's kept me on edge. Yay for the circus! Not so yay for their reputation with how they care for their animals.
Circuses have been the target of animal rights activist groups for decades, and it's hard to look past the undercover videos and pictures that have surfaced showing terrible conditions and abusive training techniques. While things seem to have gotten better, perhaps from all the attention, it's hard to know exactly what's going on behind the scenes since there are no national regulations regarding training.
So I accepted an invitation by the Ringling Bros. for a behind-the-scenes tour of their Animal Open House and to see their opening night performance. I thought it'd be a good opportunity to see the animals up close and get a better idea of how they're treated.
I have to admit, the tour was exciting. We saw gorgeous horses, including a miniature pony, zebras, Asian elephants and Bengal tigers. The highlight of our tour was watching Assa the elephant getting her daily bath.
The animals seemed well cared for, and the trainers were gentle with them. The trainers even rush to put tubs under the elephants when they pee to keep the area clean! We learned that Ringling Bros. has a Center for Elephant Conservation for breading and retirement, which provides information to people around the world on animal husbandry.
We returned later that night for the actual circus show, and it was just as fantastic and magical as it could be. My favorite parts of the evening were when a man was shot out of a cannon ON FIRE, the Chinese Troupe on bouncy stilts (oh, how I want bouncy stilts!) and the Russian Acrobats, who did over 300 flips, jumps, rolls and leaps on an 80 foot tumbling track!
Gabi's favorite parts were the clown acts, the Brazilian dancers (who she got to speak Portuguese with before the show) and, of course, the elephants.
The animal acts were impressive, but I was happy to see that their presence didn't dominate the show. Their overall short stage time combined with what I saw in the Animal Open House is giving me hope that things have finally turned around in regards to their care and handling.
If you are in the San Diego area, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus will be here through Sunday with their all-new show, Fully Charged. If you live elsewhere, check out their tour schedule to see if they will be traveling near you. Ninety minutes prior to each show you are able to visit the Animal Open House, too, and you can form your own opinion on how they're being cared for.
The best part of the whole evening was when Gabi looked up at me and asked, "Mommy, what culture is THIS?" I had a good laugh before I told her, "Circus culture, honey. They are a culture all their own."