The Greatest Show On Earth

By Steve Vertlieb: While I love animals, and certainly have no desire to see them treated cruelly, I can’t help but mourn the loss of the Ringling Bros-Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Perhaps we didn’t know any better these past one hundred forty-six years or, even worse, didn’t want to know about how circus animals were denied their freedom, or treated. Yet, it seems that a moment of historical innocence…an entire chapter, if you will…is passing us by, and leaving our lives forever.

The circus has been an integral part of our youthful memory since the beginning of things. It is difficult to recall a time when the passage of childhood into maturity was not marked by a joyous trip to the circus where wild animals would thrill millions of children, while daring trapeze artists flew “through the air with the greatest of ease,” and clowns of all shapes and sizes brought tears of laughter and happiness to “children of all ages.”

In a time of anger, bitterness, cynicism, and sadness…I cannot help but wonder if this passing of an iconic tradition leaves us better or worse….or if this passing is yet another nail in the coffin of eternal optimism, dreams, and of hope in a world that has grown somehow bleak and sad. Perhaps we didn’t know any better this last century-and-a-half. Perhaps we didn’t want to know…and yet, I cannot help but mourn the loss of a generations old tradition that left an indelible smile upon childhood’s memory. I cannot help but mourn the fading glimpse of a world that was, indeed, more innocent…yet undeniably happier…a world that is soon to become “Gone With The Wind.”

Yes, it’s the end, after 146 years…The Greatest Show On Earth will be no more in May of this year.

52 thoughts on “The Greatest Show On Earth

  1. When we graduated sixth grade in my home town (that being the apex of grade school), everybody got a free pass to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, which was sixty miles away in Denver. A bus was provided, but we had to be there at something like 7:00 am or 7:30. So the magic day came, and I only wanted to sleep in. I’d been getting up every weekday and couldn’t resist the chance not to.

    Twenty years or so later, in Virginia, I passed up another chance to see the circus. I wasn’t so much interested in the acts, but Tiny Tim was performing at it. That might have been worth it, but, you know, money, time, having to make a trip to the South Side and park and all.

    I did see one circus, though. It was a family circus, and most of the performers were dogs. For all I know, they were harshly treated offstage, but I guess I can say I’ve been to “a” circus.

    There’s a pixel scrolled every minute. Oh. Wrong post.

  2. I agree, it’s a said moment to be sure. I saw Ringling Brothers as a child, and it was thrilling and a bit overwhelming.

    But times and attitudes change, and performance art troupes like Cirque du Soleil have largely displaced traditional circuses. Part of the equation is the entertainment overload we enjoy these days. When I see near-infants in strollers playing with screen devices I have to wonder if there’s the same thrill to sitting on a hard seat hundreds of feet from the action to today’s kids. They expect interactive entertainment, and circuses are mostly passive.

    An American icon is gone. But we can still enjoy the fact that, thanks to a circus promotion gone bad, it remains illegal to plow a cotton field with elephants in North Carolina.

  3. Well if the Ringling Bros decided they couldn’t possibly go on without using animals the way they have been doing, that’s really their lack of imagination. Cirque du Soleil does very well with a circus model that doesn’t require any performing animals (outside of maybe the occasional dog if I recall correctly) and they are very popular and very imaginative.

    The sad truth is that many circuses have relied on a profit model that meant keeping these animals in tight quarters and constantly on the road which is stressful for most animals, denying many the type of care they need (namely giving them enough space for their size to move around freely at bare minimum) and that performing in front of crowds is just a stressful life for most animals, especially when they are trained using negative reinforcement methods and/or spend their lives in chains.

    Maybe as kids, we didn’t notice the chains or we wouldn’t be able to recognize the signs of stress in a tiger, but they were still there. But really it’s not on kids to be aware of the reality or even do something about it, it’s on the adults to ensure that such charming fantasies don’t come at any creature’s expense. Or people’s expense, as these circuses also have had issues with people getting hurt on the job as well.

    Much like the issues with places like Seaworld, we need to figure out ways to give people an experience with animals that doesn’t come at the animal’s expense and allows kids to enjoy animals in more natural settings, I think that would be a far better childhood memory. As charming as the circus is, it’s also important for children to learn that animals don’t just exist for our entertainment, that we shouldn’t be asking them to do a series of unnatural tricks for hours on end. They are captivating just as they are, living as they would in nature.

  4. People have chosen. As a result, many will have less exposure to animals outside of TV & Movies.

  5. …clowns of all shapes and sizes brought tears of laughter and happiness terrified children and creeped-out adults. Fixed that for you.

  6. @Aaron: and the Big Apple Circus also declared bankruptcy recently. I’d been going for almost 30 years (it was one of my first dates with the woman who later married me — she said nobody else had thought of the circus as a date), but I gave up after 2015 as I thought there was too much noise and too many cheap and/or vulgar gags. (Yes, I’m getting older; no, I don’t think the differences between us were entirely my movement.) I wonder whether the pileup of special-effects movies has numbed audiences to the thrill of something really happening right in front of them. (Elliott: “This is *reality*, Greg.”) It’s worth noting that RBB&B missed a season sometime 30-40 years ago (according to the history exhibit at the Circus World Museum — the Wikipedia article on RBB&B doesn’t mention this), but this sounds more permanent. I do wonder why they didn’t try cutting back to one unit with shorter runs in each city, but I don’t know what fraction of their costs are per city (transport, setup/teardown, …) rather than per show.

    I also wonder what will become of the abovementioned museum; it’s not a great location (although not far from the Dells), but I found it fascinating. When I was there the exhibits included one covering the shift from horse power (iconic because the Ringling brothers’ father was a harness maker) to horsepower (symbolized by a Caterpillar D6 — I was hoping for a D7, of which there was only a photograph).

    Nostalgia note: I know two people who went to the RBB&B Clown College; saw one of them in performance (~1986 — the last time I saw RBB&B).

  7. @Sunhawk: the connection between shutting down and removing elephants is unclear; apparently attendance had been going down for some time.

  8. I grew out of Circuses 40 years ago, but there are still cool ones. In Sweden, we have got Cirkus Cirkör that has a much more adult approach.

  9. After that, if you see a clown, you won’t be able to tell yourself “maybe the circus is in town”. Scary.

  10. @Chip Hitchcock

    Don’t know where you are, but if you’re close – Antique Powerland in Oregon is pretty cool for tractors and such. In addition to their own steam machine museum, they host about a dozen other small museums on the grounds including the Caterpillar tractor museum. Highlight of the year is the Steam Up where they actually parade the older steam powered tractors and such. Their website is so-so, but:

    Antique Powerland

  11. To the best of my knowledge, the only time I’ve been to see a circus was when I was five yours old–meaning it was about 59 years ago. I do remember that the clowns scared me then. (Now they just bore me.)

    If Ringling Brothers can’t survive without mistreating animals, then they should definitely go away. I won’t miss them.

  12. It is difficult to recall a time when the passage of childhood into maturity was not marked by a joyous trip to the circus

    I think that’s over-the-top hyperbole, or else there were significant regional differences. In my neighborhood growing up, people went to the circus sometimes, but there was certainly no rite-of-passage flavor about it. You went to the circus like you went to the beach, not something you did every day, but not freighted with any special significance either.

    I’m not sure whether I ever actually went to the circus or not; I have what feels like some memories, but they could just as easily be leftover mental imagery from having read a story featuring the circus. What I do remember going to and enjoying is local carnivals, and (in college and adulthood) the State Fair.

  13. @Hampus Eckerman: again we run into divergent meanings of the word “adult”; do you know of Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity, the show for which you can buy a seat-for-two rather than a chair?

    @Stoic Cynic: unfortunately I’m in Boston and traveling less — but thanks for the reference; it’s going on my list just in case.

  14. “@Hampus Eckerman: again we run into divergent meanings of the word “adult”; do you know of Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity, the show for which you can buy a seat-for-two rather than a chair?”

    Missed those, but not my kink. 😛

  15. ObSF: This moose vaguely remembers that Ringling’s Circus (or its owner) gets a mention in Iron Sunrise by Charlie Stross. So that’s another thing that’s broken that particular universe. 3:O(>

  16. I’ve been to multiple circus performances. I’ve also been to a bunch of sideshow acts which covers a lot of ground from Cirque to Renaissance Festivals, to Vegas acts.

  17. Many of you have commented that the Circus “abused animals.” This is false.

    Ringling was the focus of a coordinated legal assault by leftist eco people. They had tens of millions in legal costs and the aggravation of dealing with the lawsuits. Ringling prevailed in court (finally) with Judge Emmet Sullivan ruling in 2013 that the Animal Welfare Institute and Fund for Animals among others had brought a “frivolous, unreasonable and groundless” lawsuit alleging abuse of animals.

    The losers paid millions in damages to Ringling. But the bad publicity and having to focus on frivolous lawsuits for a decade hurt their business.

    There are often a lot of reasons why a business fails. But the frivolous eco-loon lawsuits and slander by those groups certainly played a part. As the Wall St. Journal put it: “Perhaps market forces would have ended the circus eventually, but America would be a better place if left-wing activists didn’t always seek to destroy legal industries that they dislike.”

  18. I will miss the circus trains.

    Oh, and while Chip is unlikely to get to Powerland, I will second the endorsement. When I spent much more time in Oregon, I and my wife occasionally volunteered at the Oregon Electric Railway Museum, which is one of the museums in Powerland. Thus it was that I was once driven around the grounds in a streetcar piloted by my wife.

  19. @Chip – I just think it’s interesting, perhaps even a shame, that the Ringling Bros circus decided that their animal acts were so integral a part of their circus that they’d rather just shut the whole thing down than retune it to use just people doing acrobatics or clowns or whatnot. They could even have tried people pretending to be animals!

    @airboy – there are plenty of other ways to have close encounters with animals beyond circuses. I’ve been to the circus a few times as a kid, which was ok but not exactly something I think of nostalgia or even about the animals in particular. That is not where I got my love of animals from, as really it’s more about using animals as a prop for spectacle and/or comedy, the novelty of making animals do things they don’t normally do.

    What DOES bring up for me those fond fuzzy childhood feelings about animals was more things like my father bringing me out on rambles through natural spaces and giving me opportunities to observe and interact with animals in their natural settings, mostly in forests, fields, ravines, creeks, ponds, lakes, etc. We caught (and released) minnows and crayfish, chased butterflies and moths, I raised caterpillars in jars, watched rabbits and squirrels go about their business, listened to birds in the trees and learned how to identify them by sound and look, even caught a garter snake or two and learned what it’s like to get “musked” ha ha ha! We also visited a lot of zoos, which have come from a past not that different from circuses and really turned themselves into institutions that are more about conservation and education (for the most part, some zoos are still sadly not always on board) and encouraging people to learn about animals as part of large ecosystems, that we are also part of! So I don’t agree with the idea that without circuses, people won’t have any ways to learn about animals or encounter them up close.

    Now it’s possible that the idea of a circus may not as readily lend itself to a makeover like a zoo, mostly because one of the main elements of a circus is that it’s a travelling show, and maybe for those reasons it’s not something that can survive as such, because as I mentioned above, there are not many ways to transport animals long distances that aren’t stressful for those animals, with just a few species exceptions and most of those are domesticated animals. But almost all animals, including a number of people, do best with a reliable routine and having a comfortable home base to relax, which a travelling circus would have to put a considerable amount of money into creating what could be thought of as a minature, moving zoo. Not sure many companies would be able or willing to invest money like that. The animals’ welfare would have to be the top priority at all times.

  20. Congratulations Hampus! You found some of the negative publicity and quoting of “activists” that was rejected by the courts!

    @Sunhawk – I’m delighted that you had the opportunity to interact with nature growing up. We had a very large spread and kept cattle. We had neighbors with hogs, chickens and horses, etc…… I’ve been fortunate to go to many zoos, lots of parks, and hunt in many places.

  21. You found some of the negative publicity and quoting of “activists” that was rejected by the courts!

    You mean like the $270,000 fine levied by the USDA? Was that the work of activists?

  22. Airboy I’m trying to understand why you are so hostile towards a group of people who are trying to look out for the welfare of these animals. I’m no fan of PETA believe me, but I think those articles just highlight that there are many opportunities for animal injury in these circuses, even if we leave out whether they use negative reinforcement or outright abusive training methods. You claim it’s a leftist issue but as someone who has been involved in environmentalist issues since I was young where I live up here in Ontario, I’ve worked with a number of hunters and farmers who were as right-wing as they come who shared my passion for respecting and protecting nature and animals, even if we didn’t see eye to eye on other issues. It’s not really a partisan issue, it’s an issue of compassion and responsibility.

  23. I’ve been to more circuses than you have, but my guess is that Ringling Brothers was ailing more than we knew and the animal rights activists caused it to collapse. But they also were having a crisis of confidence. I went to one show about six years ago where about a third of the show was showing things on a giant screen. Well, if I wanted to watch TV, I wouldn’t buy a circus ticket!

    Airboy: I think what you are saying is reasonably accurate. Moreover, there are lots of animals that LIKE performing in public, like dogs and horses. We won’t get to see them either. *Sigh*

    As for the Big Apple Circus, my understanding is that their financial problems stem from their being partially a nonprofit and that their grants had fallen off. They’re a different problem than Ringling Bros.

    Of course what the animal rights activists want is to ban zoos as well so that the only way we can experience animals is by staring at a screen. What a glorious victory they have achieved with the death of Ringling Brothers.

  24. So that’s another thing that’s broken that particular universe. 3:O(>

    Because it’s set in the future? Unless it describes Ringling’s as a company that remanned active without interruption, we can assume that in that future it comes back in some form.

  25. Seems to me that this is a pretty clear case of the market deciding what succeeds and what fails. Enough people stopped going to the circus, for whatever reason, that Ringling Brothers closed up shop. I’m not sure why libertarians would have a problem with this; isn’t that exactly what libertarianism is all about? If a business stops being profitable, shouldn’t it close down?

  26. @Cassy B

    IMO, libertarians do not have a problem with markets driving change. When there are non-market based influences, then things can get a little different.

    In this case, it seems that a small cadre of vocal animal treatment advocates was able to change the perception of their business while also forcing it to expend money and effort in responding to court challenges.

    To the extent that the advocates were able to stop abusive practices, then the changes were worthwhile. To the extent that the advocates were active on the basis that holding any animal in captivity is abusive, then….not so much.

    I think they ran into a number of different factors. Absent the activities of the more extreme advocates, the circus might well have continued on for some unknown stretch of time.

    Regards,
    Dann

  27. I’m surprised someone hasn’t already bought up the name and started making plans for doing something with it. Maybe they’re waiting until the circus actually shuts down in May.

    I mean how long was Hostess out of business before we started getting twinkies again? Eight months?

  28. Dann, according to CNN: High operating costs and the decline of ticket sales “made the circus an unsustainable business for the company,” Feld said. (Feld is the CEO. If anyone knows why they closed down, he would.)

    Costs were too high. Too few people were buying tickets. That looks like “market forces” to me. I notice that Cirque de Soleil doesn’t seem to have problems filling seats.

  29. In this case, it seems that a small cadre of vocal animal treatment advocates was able to change the perception of their business while also forcing it to expend money and effort in responding to court challenges.

    That is market forces at work. Litigation and public perception are part of the market. If you believe that market forces should drive business decisions, you have to live with the fact that things like that are part of the market.

  30. IMO, libertarians do not have a problem with markets driving change. When there are non-market based influences, then things can get a little different.

    How would that work in Libertaria, then? Shoot people who sue businesses for reasons you don’t consider valid?

    Or should the government step in and counterbalance “non-market” forces like public perception and protest and litigation, all of which are market forces that have been affecting the market since they and markets existed?

  31. I got taken to see Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey in Mississippi at the age the age of five. I wasn’t scared of the clowns (I’ve never found clowns scary), but mightily impressed by the huge three ring circus, because that sort of thing didn’t exist in Germany at the time, at least not where I lived. No idea if the animals were abused or not, though come to think of it, they probably were. I do remember that it bothered me when the very 1970s looking animal trainer cracked his whip at the tigers. Coincidentally, Ringling Brother, Barnum and Bailey also permanently ruined me for the small travelling village circusses we occasionally got at home.

    Germany still has circusses, by the way. Not just the travelling village circusses, but also big ones like Circus Roncalli (which is actually Austrian) or Circus Krone. Circus Krone still has animals, including elephants and lions, and caught some heat from animal rights activists for that. Roncalli has always been more about clowns and acrobatics than animals from the start, though they have a few horses and dogs. As a matter of fact, the Roncalli owner is opposed to having wild animals like lions and tigers perform. Indeed, Roncalli might be one model for Ringling Brothers to emulate, since they offer a traditional circus experience without problematic animal performances.

  32. @Sunhawk:

    I just think it’s interesting, perhaps even a shame, that the Ringling Bros circus decided that their animal acts were so integral a part of their circus that they’d rather just shut the whole thing down than retune it to use just people doing acrobatics or clowns or whatnot

    .
    You’re still misreading the press release. They did retune, and it didn’t work — ticket sales fell more sharply than they were falling before. If you read the history, you’ll see it’s obvious they had a specific splashy niche; they failed when they tried to peel off some of the one-ring market. Maybe they could have succeeded if they’d started several years ago, when they might have had enough money that they could persuade audiences to come even without the big-animal acts. But I’m not sure it would have worked, because they were stuck in the big-arena model — and most of the seats in big arenas are so far away that most human-scale acts are hard to see.

    I read a semi-history of RBB&B some years ago; it was entangled with the memoirs of one of their first-generation showgirls (the ones who ride the elephants and parade in as little as possible but don’t show any traditional circus skills). I wonder whether RBB&B lost their way when they were still in tents but decided that they could suck up the market lost by the death of vaudeville.

  33. The incredible cringe-worthy badness of “Kristen Schaal is a Horse” outweighs not only Cats or The Lion King, but even their summed goodness.

  34. That’s what I was kinda thinking about JJ, something along those lines. Or something like the Famous People Players, which is something of a Toronto institution.

    I think there are definitely creative ways to evoke animals without having to use actual animals, though it may not seem as magical to some people, I’m sure. But I myself am a big fan of Jim Henson and know that what can be done with puppets and such can be just as magical: Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal are still two of my favourite movies 😀

  35. In Sweden, circuses aren’t allowed to use wild animals with the exception of elephants and sealions. It was not animal rights activists who managed to make the other animals illegal, but veterinarians and they are now working to remove the exceptions.

  36. @Cassy B

    And paying for lawyers to fight allegations in courts would be a part of that “costs were too high”. Also, the PR aspect of the protesting groups certainly was one factor in those declining ticket sales.

    I’m not saying that the protesters were the sole cause. Only that they were significant enough to make a difference in the timing of RBBB’s demise.

    @Kurt

    IMO, libertarians are far more concerned when government the force creating non-market driven distortions by enforcing regulations that have little to do with fraudulent or harmful corporate operations. The deregulation of the telecommunication industry comes to mind. Of course, the debate over what constitutes “harm” and “fraud” powers many merry-go-rounds.

    As far as private actors, that’s why we have courts. In looking over the ever-questionable Wikipedia, RBBB was awarded far more in compensation for fraudulent claims than they paid out in fines. I don’t know if RBBB experienced a net cost or income from their court activities.

    Regards,
    Dann

  37. Dann, I’m not saying that the protesters were the sole cause. Only that they were significant enough to make a difference in the timing of RBBB’s demise.

    Citation? Because you also say this, in the very same post:

    As far as private actors, that’s why we have courts. In looking over the ever-questionable Wikipedia, RBBB was awarded far more in compensation for fraudulent claims than they paid out in fines. I don’t know if RBBB experienced a net cost or income from their court activities.

    So I don’t honestly see how you can assert that court costs were a factor. And as for protesters… do you, seriously, want to outlaw people protesting?

    I thought, perhaps in error, that libertarians have a strong belief in the fundamental right of people to protest without interference. Surely you’re not suggesting the right of an individual to protest whatever they darn well want to protest should be infringed upon, however wrongheaded you feel their cause might be?

    Honestly, you seem to want to shield Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey from ordinary market forces, which include rising costs and a fickle buying public, and, yes, legal liability. That strikes me as a protectionist stance, rather than a libertarian one.

  38. @ Cassy B

    The news reports of the closing of the circus indicate several different causes. Those include changing entertainment preferences, the high cost of operating the circus, and the influence of the protesters.

    I have said nothing to indicate that I am opposed to people protesting. In fact, I indicated that to the extent that their efforts ended abuse of those animals, I approve of their actions.

    Perhaps you are confusing me with airboy?????

    Regards,
    Dann

  39. The ultimate goal of animal rights activists, after banning circuses, is to ban zoos, on the grounds that animals are there in a condition of involuntary servitude. They would prefer that the only interaction people have with animals is through watching documentaries.

    Ultimately, what they want is to have everyone spend more time staring at their smartphones.

  40. IMO, libertarians are far more concerned when government the force creating non-market driven distortions by enforcing regulations that have little to do with fraudulent or harmful corporate operations.

    Entertainingly mangled though that may be, it’s not a response to my question, it’s just another paean to Libertaria.

    But that’s okay, it wasn’t a serious question.

  41. The ultimate goal of animal rights activists,

    …which we can deduce, since as we know, all such people have the same goals.

  42. I thought, perhaps in error, that libertarians have a strong belief in the fundamental right of people to protest without interference.

    I know more than a few Libertarians who believe that it is philosophically wrong to include non-financial considerations in decisions about money, especially moral or ethical ones. Likewise, they believe that any public action that interferes with a company making a profit is morally wrong.

    It’s not a belief held by all the Libertarians I know, but it’s not uncommon.

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