Seeing the elephant

What the circus tells us about our relationships with animals.

I ALMOST MISSED seeing the elephants. As it turned out, so did our photographer, though he was at the beginning of the traditional Circus Animal Walk from train to stage and I was at the end. Instead of the playful photo op he had expected, Rick found himself stationed 20 feet away as the elephants and other animals were swiftly run off their train cars and onto the dark Seattle streets. I arrived at the "parade" just as the elephants were trundling across the street and into their holding pen near Key Arena, with the zebras and horses following closely after.

"Not a single protester to be seen!" said the publicist cheerfully. I asked her if any members of the public had seen the animals. She said that about 20 or so civilians were mingled in with the TV camera people and other media; the event had not been announced to the general public.

The Animal Walk, of course, is a circus tradition, but this covert operation bore little resemblance to the sort of brass-band main street extravaganza that most people conjure up when they hear the words, "The circus is coming to town!" Instead of dazzling the populace with the traveling menagerie, the circus seemed to be staging this "event" out of a sense of obligation. The other animals, such as the tigers and llamas, were being transported over to the Arena separately.

Two things bother most of my friends about the circus: the clowns and the animals. The clowns have never bothered me particularly. I'm not aware of having ever found them exceptionally funny, but like the Goths that still occasionally wander Broadway, I recognize the legitimacy of their lifestyle, even if I don't entirely understand it. ("Why are they throwing pies at each other? Well, I won't judge them by my narrow Western standards of behavior. I'm sure it has great significance in their culture.")

As for the animals, the promotional materials I received refer to "Our Animal Partners," as if the llamas and Bengal tigers had representation on Feld Entertainment's board of directors. But with the advent of animal rights activists, along with the growing public awareness of vanishing species, fragile ecosystems, and the like, circus animals have become the entertainment's "dark side," its decadent underbelly. At one time, the circus had the sideshow, but a raised public consciousness has put an end to the idea of "freaks." Bearded ladies, Siamese twins, human skeletons, and the legendary Fat Lady are no longer thought to be suitable for public exhibition. So now it's only the animals that are left to make us feel uneasy.

Bruce Bohmke, the curator at Woodland Park Zoo, believes that the problems circuses pose are not due to the care of animals so much as the perception of them. "I believe, though I don't actually know," he says, "that the circus has staff that are just as loving and careful of their animals as we are. But the problem is not how they're treated but how they're made to act." He recalls taking his children to the circus years ago and watching while the tigers rolled on the ground like dogs. "I thought, 'That's amazing,' and then, 'and that's wrong.'" Tigers, of course, don't stand on their hind legs or jump through hoops in the wild, just as elephants don't balance on tiny platforms or stand in elaborate Ziegfield-style tableaux in nature. But human beings are inveterate anthropomorphizers, and while we no longer want to watch animals mastered via chair and whip, we still want to believe that their behavior can mirror our own.

DURING THE SHOW, the ringmaster (who, long deprived of his whip, is an odd sort of cross between a magician who does no tricks and a Vegas lounge singer) sang a song called "Those Fabulous Animals" for a number called the "Living Carousel." I found it significant that a good portion of the animals on display, including a giraffe, a rhino, a hippo, and a bevy of horses, were not animals at all, but human performers wearing elaborate costumes or carrying foam stand-ins. In another 20 years, you wonder, will the tigers be costumed dancers and the elephants motorized trucks?

Eventually, of course, I was treated to the routine that clearly put the lie to the circus' promotion of its animals as "partners" in the enterprise. As the tamer entered the tigers' ring, the amplified voice of the ringmaster announced that the show was an example of "mutual respect" between man and beast. Uh huh. Once they start featuring that guy with the Siegfried and Roy hair jumping from platform to platform while the tigers hold the whip, I might start agreeing with them.

So why does Ringling insist on keeping its animals? In part, it's undoubtedly a matter of tradition. Both the audiences and the performers expect the elephants and other animal acts, and even if the big cats and pachyderms go away, there'll still be performing cats, dogs, birds, and horses for the foreseeable future. An economic concern prevails as well: Without its animals, how would "the Greatest Show on Earth" stand out from the myriad of musicals, Broadway shows, and non-animal troupes like Cirque de Soleil?

And perhaps a germ of irrational myth operates here, a Dr. Doolittle-ish fantasy in which mankind can revive some prelapsarian bliss by coexisting in playful partnership with its fellow life-forms. Something along those lines must have led me to watch the keepers give the elephants a quick pre-show scrub-down one day. Then, as the elephants approached me on their way back to their pen, two things struck me. The first was their size; as they drew near, they kept looming larger until they seemed impossibly huge, like an optical illusion. The second was their eyes. I'd never noticed how small and strangely delicate an elephant's eyes are, deep brown and remarkably human. Almost lost in those vast heads, they reminded me of the eyes of a hopelessly obese person, the sort of man or woman who once would have been the star attraction in the sideshow tent.

In that moment, I wondered if the tamed animal, like the vanished sideshow freaks, isn't a reminder of the human need to gawk, to test the strange boundary between empathy and terror. Our control over them is a mastery not just of the animal but of our own fear of the animal's power and inhumanity.

As he shambled past, indecorously depositing several pounds of elephant droppings in his wake, I had to smile at my elaborate conceit. Like the blind men in the fable who can only conceive of an elephant as a snake, a rope, or a tree, perhaps I was just anxious to perceive my elephant in those eyes; since we were on the concrete of Seattle Center and not in the middle of his jungle, it was impossible to see him as he actually was.

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