Big Top Brawl

Hey, kids: The circus is coming to town! I bet you can’t wait, right? Sure — we’ve have all had some type of fascination with circuses at some time in our lives. The visual spectacle of exotic animals and aerial artistry makes a profound impact on kids’ minds, often the first truly huge, overwhelmingly awesome event of their lives. For some of us, the allure is a childhood relic soon displaced in our minds by visions of comely contortionists, chicken geekery and other Jim Rose-style freaky. Still, some are instantly hooked, and remain so forever.

Either way, the circus facilitates our collective introduction into the carny arts and ignites a creative spark that never really goes away. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is the gold standard of such operations, and it rarely fails to draw rapturous crowds, packing every venue it hits on the road. A business that began in rickety canvas tents, waterproofed with highly flammable chemicals, now commands top dollar in some of America’s biggest, most-prestigious arenas, from Madison Square Garden on down. Fans come from miles around for acrobats and clowns, but what really masses the marks are the animal acts — specifically, the lions, tigers and elephants. It is this, the most popular aspect of their operation, that has proven the most controversial, and a local organization is working to make sure their latest visit to Northeast Florida does not come off without a hitch.

JaxProtest takes a narrow, specific focus on what it characterizes as the maltreatment of elephants trained to perform under the Big Top. The website ( is replete with relevant data, as well as pictures that speak for themselves. “For animals in circuses,” its members write, “there is no such thing as ‘positive reinforcement’ — only varying degrees of punishment and deprivation. To force them to perform these meaningless and physically uncomfortable tricks, trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks and other painful tools of the trade. In the Ringling Bros. circus, elephants are beaten, hit, prodded and jabbed with sharp hooks, sometimes until bloody. Ringling breaks the spirit of elephants when they’re vulnerable babies who should still be with their mothers.” Brutal stuff, all of which Ringling denies, of course.

The group denounces Ringling not only for the harshness of training methods, but also for the conditions in which the animals are forced to live, work and travel: “Constant travel means that animals are confined to boxcars, trailers or trucks for days at a time in extremely hot and cold weather … Elephants, big cats, bears and primates are confined to cramped and filthy cages in which they eat, drink, sleep, defecate and urinate — all in the same place. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus boasts that its two units travel more than 25,000 miles as the circus tours the country for 11 months each year. Ringling’s own documents reveal that on average, elephants are chained for more than 26 hours straight … sometimes continually chained for as many as 60 to 100 hours.”

JaxProtest members are volunteers who self-define as “teachers, MMA fighters, web designers, stay at home mothers, retired military, students and everyone in between.” The group plans to protest all seven of Ringling Bros.’ planned performances scheduled at downtown Jacksonville’s Veterans Memorial Arena, spread out over four days, Jan. 19, 20, 21 and 22. To this end, JaxProtest has partnered with like-minded organizations including The Girls Gone Green (, Animal Rights Foundation and OccupyJax. The martial arts center Headhunter Muai Thai also supports the protest; the fact that some of its members train there makes for a nice counterpoint to the widespread perception of animal-rights activists as, well, geeks. It also makes sense, given the elephant’s prominent positioning within Thai culture. Another collaborator, the Lotus Elephant Sanctuary, has gone so far as to begin preparations to establish its own wild elephant preserve in Laos.

I’m not much of a circus fan (though I do try to catch the all-black Universoul Circus on its yearly swing through the area). While the animal-rights aspect of the argument is plenty compelling, for me the issue pivots on the question of children’s rights — specifically, the right to not be traumatized by these periodic animal freak-out sessions that have, on occasion, been precipitated by the mistreatment of animals. If an animal ran amok in the crowd or maimed its handler in the presence of kids, that outfit should be banned from that city forever, and investigations should immediately begin into any possible causalities. Ringling has a responsibility to lead on this issue, so that smaller circuses cannot use any laxity up-top as an excuse for failure down below.

Ringling has so far been able to avoid the disgusting, depraved moral and ethical lapses of SeaWorld, whose executives are some of the biggest pieces of scumbag trash anywhere in the United States today — and if you know any of them, please tell them I said so. The Tilikum debacle should’ve been enough to shut the whole place down. Instead, they were able to a) basically bury the negligent homicide of their own employee by claiming the victim got herself killed through her own incompetence, then b) allow a killer whale known to be lethally dangerous to its own species and to people (including its closest human companion) to continue performing for the public, whose children will almost certainly be forced to watch that thing kill again, on their dime.

Ringling Brothers should be mindful of the piss-poor example set by SeaWorld (not to be confused with “Sea World”, an entirely unrelated Australian company that does much the exact same thing, but better and safer — they like to make that clear). Tilikum was born in the wild, abducted at age two, separated from his family and forced to live with older, non-related orcas that physically abused him on a regular basis. He was trained at Sealand in Canada, using methods that included deliberate starvation, and perhaps worse.

It was there where he killed a 20-year-old female trainer in 1991; it was deemed an accident — he didn’t do it, he just helped others do it — and they kept him working. Like a pedophile priest, he was transferred — appropriately enough, to Florida, a state that openly, gleefully encourages the presence of all violent predatory animals, even those that aren’t human. Whether his history raised any red flags, or if his new handlers were even informed of that history, isn’t clear, but since this is Florida, we can presume they did know and just didn’t care. Well, obviously, they don’t care and never did. We have the public record to tell us that.

They found a man’s naked body in Tilikum’s tank in 1999. SeaWorld said the guy sneaked in, drunk, which implies they kept a known killer under such lax protection, a person could get in the tank when the park was closed, even if they were drunk and naked. Luckily, it was not some intrepid pipsqueak trying to get a closer look at the lovely orca, or a terrorist hoping to channel Tilikum’s insane killing power for jihad. His third killing, in ’10, fit the modus operandi of the first: grabbed by the aquatic mammal and thrown around the pool until dead. Dawn Brancheau was a 16-year veteran who knew this beast better than anyone, so she didn’t die quickly, unfortunately for her; her jaw, ribs and neck were broken and her spinal cord severed before she drowned, paralyzed, at the bottom.

At least a dozen people had to watch that woman die, but were powerless to save her. It was SeaWorld’s job to keep her safe, and they neglected that duty so profoundly, the park’s continued existence is a disgrace. Brancheau should be a martyr for workplace safety, and the video of her death should be made public, so Americans will understand the pressing need to put these people out of business. Instead, OSHA issued a whitewashed report, a bullshit $75,000 fine, and Tilikum was back entertaining the masses a year later. As the kids say, “OMG!” Suffice to say, SeaWorld is so depraved, even Tommy Lee has voiced concerns.

Among the dozens of serious attacks on humans by killer whales, only one has happened in the wild, in 1972. Either the captivity contributes to the aggression, or humans have somehow successfully captured only the most violent specimens. One should note that Tilikum, who’s spent 28 of his 30 years captive, is himself implicated in 75 percent of all documented human deaths related to orcas, which makes a compelling case for causality. In this increasingly unstable economy, all it takes is one unfortunate incident to torpedo a company, even one as big, as rich and as historic as the Greatest Show On Earth. Just one more elephant, or a single overly aggressive lion, could do to the entire circus industry what fires, economic depression, two world wars and brutal train-wrecks could not: Kill business forever. So, it’s probably best not to beat them, right? Sure. We’ll see how that works out.

Shelton H

Hull is a longtime contributor to Folio Weekly and the author of the column “Money Jungle.” Follow him on Twitter @SheltonHull.