The Inner Life of Elephants

The big tent of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus is being folded up and put away for good. The leaders of the radical group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) celebrated the announcement this week as a great victory.

PETA is convinced it was their effort that played the key role in the decision of “The Greatest Show on Earth” to stop showing its trained elephants, lions, tigers, camels and dogs around the country.

For years, PETA lobbied and sued to close down RBBBC. The company cited other factors, such as declining ticket sales and the heavy cost of transporting a 300-member cast plus animals from city to city.

Apparently, the underlying reason for the diminishing returns was the inability of the circus to compete with so many other forms of entertainment. When RBBBC started up 146 years ago, there was no such competition. When the circus came to town, the exotic beasts and daring trapeze artists were, for many towns and cities, a rare opportunity to glimpse such spectacles. Not so today. If you want to show your child the marvels of Creation, there are zoos aplenty, and they offer a much broader range of wildlife and in a more educational setting.

It is likely that the circus would have gone into decline in any case, but it seems that the agitation of PETA and other animal rights groups hastened its demise.

Allegations of cruel treatment of the circus animals formed a major part of the anti-circus campaign. But the allegations were never proven. In fact, in 2014, animal rights groups were ordered by a court to pay Feld Entertainment, which owns RBBBC, $25.2 million after the latter won a counter-suit. Still, continued public pressure led to the removal of the iconic elephants from the circus last May, and now all their fellow performers are going, too.

Whether proven or not, it is possible that there have been abuses. There is no justification for the brutal handling of animals to provide entertainment when the show would go on just as well if the animals were treated humanely. It’s our obligation to treat animals decently, causing no unnecessary pain — for they, too, are Hashem’s creatures.

However, the agenda of the animal rights lobby reaches far beyond prevention of cruelty. For example, Jan Creamer, the president of Animal Defenders International, was among those who hailed the closing of the circus not only as a victory but as a landmark in social consciousness.

She asserted that even if only some circuses mistreated animals, many people have come to believe that simply keeping them in captivity and forcing them to perform was in itself a form of cruelty.

In other words, there is supposed to be something demeaning in forcing animals to perform for humans. A kind of comedown, comparable to humiliating a person by making him or her do tricks for the entertainment of others.

This definition of cruelty to animals attributes a sense of self-esteem or dignity to animals that we are hard put to recognize. In former times (darker ages, according to them), it was assumed to be a matter of total indifference to the elephant whether it gave pleasure to the crowds or not, as long as it was fed on time. At any rate, we have no testimony on record from the animals that being “forced to perform” was a source of anguish to them. And we, at least, are not privy to the inner life of elephants.

Creamer’s comment does not give the full flavor of the ideology, though. If there be any doubt as to how far the thinking of animal rights activists goes, the mission statement of PETA makes it quite clear:

“All animals have the ability to suffer in the same way and to the same degree that humans do. They feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness, and motherly love… a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. Each one values his or her life and fights the knife.”

This radical leveling of all echelons of life is on its face preposterous. To suggest that the range of feelings experienced by human beings are known identically to animals — rodents included — is indefensible from any standpoint. There is no science, and there certainly is no morality, to substantiate it.

Furthermore, what is most pernicious about their worldview is not just that they seek to raise animals to the level of man, but that they seek at the same time to lower man to the level of animals.

We do not mourn the end of the circus. Baruch Hashem, we have nobler and more edifying activities and entertainments for our children.

But we do lament the decline of belief — once shared by all people — that human beings have a special place in Creation and are entrusted with a special mission, well above the animals. Furthermore, there is ample reason to fear that the end of the circus will only embolden PETA and their allies as they wage war on the humane and legitimate use of animals for the benefit of man.