The Greatest Show on Earth?

by Ana Rivera for Professor Parfitt's Rhetoric course

Children of all ages

“The greatest show on Earth is now the tallest show on Earth, the strongest show on Earth, the most amazing show on Earth, and the funniest show on Earth.”1 These are the lines heard in the television commercial shown in the Cleveland, Ohio area when Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus was coming to the Gund Arena in 1998. And they were not lying. What the spectator sees is amazing. The 29 second commercial shows acrobats and gymnasts who seem to be defying gravity, a man pulling, with only his mouth, a rope attached to an elephant, another man who blows fire, jugglers, clowns, tightrope walkers, and people bursting out of cannons. But it also shows a roaring tiger popping out of a paper- covered ring, an elephant dancing with a woman, and a choreographed dance in which elephants form a line and stand on their hind legs while hanging on to each other’s shoulders. Between each act, there is the face of a joyful child, and right beside, the proud parents who triumphed in giving their youngster an unforgettable experience.

When my four-year-old niece sees this, she recognizes with excitement the animals “elephant” and “tiger.” I ask her where they live, and she responds: “far away.” Do they dance? She sounds insulted with this last question: “NO!” Even a kid knows this. This is why it is so unbelievable that a man can teach elephants five times his size a complicated choreography they follow as a group.

The children in the commercial are amazed at the animal’s ability to do this. I am personally amazed at the human’s ability to make them do it. It makes me question our authority over them. How do they do it? Why do they do it? Is it possible for at least one of these animals to enjoy this? Or do they all do it out of fear and pain? And then, more profoundly, how different is animal mind and human mind? Does lack of reason mean lack of sentiment? How does our treatment of animals reflect our attitudes towards life?

From past to present

The circus has been part of American history since the end of the 18th century. The first circus, Thomas Pool’s, opened August 27, 1785 and featured a horse and a clown play. In 1787, two camels were shown in New York, and after that, trained birds and dogs in uniform began their stardom. Lions began theirs in the beginning of the 1790’s, followed by what was believed to be the first elephant to reach America, brought from India by the acclaimed sea captain Jacob Crowninshield. Circuses kept evolving and growing in popularity, in great part thanks to Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth and Ringling Bros., who by the beginning of the 20th century had transported their shows throughout the entire nation. In 1919, these two companies merged, forming a super-circus; Madison Square Garden was home to its first show. Most of the American circus’s history after this year is accredited to this monopolistic affiliation, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows (RBB&B). In 1929, RBB&B reached a net income of one million dollars. In 1970, forty years later, Mattel, Inc. bought the company for forty-seven million dollars. They started touring in other parts of the including Canada, Russia and Japan, showing acts such as men wrestling with alligators and leopards riding on the back of rhinos.2

Today, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is still the largest and most powerful circus industry in America. They tour the nation annually, changing their program every year so that no city sees the same show more than once. Currently, they have three different shows on tour. Bellobration, or the red tour, is guided by Bello, a comic daredevil who has become a legend for RBB&B.3 Boom A Ring, the gold tour, gets the spectator and the wild-but-tamed animals closer than ever. Finally, there is Over The Top, the blue tour, “…a wacky and whimsical circus spectacular where dogs fly, Asian Elephants stomp, hop, and groove and one courageous man stands eye to eye with a pack of powerful Bengal tigers.”4 The online commercials for all these tours are little different from that of 1998, and declare the performances “heart-stopping, larger-than-life”5

The Ringmaster

Carl Hagenbeck was a merchant of wild animals at the beginning of the 20th century. He supplied many European zoos, as well as the renamed American circus of PT Barnum.6 In 1909, Hugh Elliot translated Carl Hagenbeck’s experiences with wild animals in his book Beasts and Men. He dedicates a full chapter to the training of animals. The way Hagenbeck saw it, training in circuses and zoos was only a way of bringing different species together teaching them respect and civility. He states that training for performing animals is no longer cruel:

There is probably no sphere in which the growth of humanitarian sentiment has been more striking than in the treatment and training of performing animals. Obedience which in former days was due to fear is now willingly paid by the animal from motives of affection… Sympathy with the animal, patience with its deficiencies, has brought about a perfection of education which cruelty altogether failed to secure. And at the same time relations between trainer and beast have improved too.7

He also declares that the trainer is there to facilitate understanding between animals and to prevent quarrels. They foment healthy play between all species, but they need to be there because there are often “misunderstandings” between the creatures:

Here, perhaps a polar bear lumbers toward a lion and playfully tugs the latter’s mane; but the king of beasts misses the point of the joke, and gives his Artic comrade a heavy box on the ears. This might be the beginning of serious trouble, but the trainer is quickly on the spot, and by a kindly blow on the ribs intimates to the lion that civility is expected during lessons.8

Note the rhetoric of the quote: The bear playfully tugs the mane; the lion misses the point of the joke and gives his comrade a box on the ears. Thankfully, the trainer is there to save the day by kindly striking the lion’s ribs. How is a blow on the ribs ever kind? This sounds more like The Lion King and less like real performance training. The rest of the chapter contains the same wording. At the time, according to Elliot’s translation of Hagenbeck, there were only small and sympathetic beatings to educate a lion as if it were a child.

If we can trust what RBB&B says, they train their animals with care and love: “Our performances let you see the unique relationships between animals and humans, and help you appreciate the need to protect wildlife for future generations… The training and handling of all of our animals are based on constant contact, daily routines and nurturing. This interaction builds a rapport between animals and handlers based on trust, respect and affection.”9But can trust, respect, and affection make an elephant dance?

Animal activists seem not to buy it. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) website is rich in information that challenges everything RBB&B says. It is filled with footage of elephant trainers harshly beating the elephants with their bullhooks for no apparent reason. One of the most powerful videos shows trainer Tim Frisco, from Carson & Barnes, teaching would-be trainers how to dominate elephants and use the bullhook, which has a sharp metal hook and spiked end. Frisco’s father is a former trainer for RBB&B circus.10 To see this video, where the elephant screams in pain while Frisco instructs, “don’t touch them, hurt them,” leaves you cynical and disillusioned. It also shows many other trainers misusing the bullhook to the point where elephants bleed. After some footage of elephant abuse in circuses throughout the nation, the video shows an elephant growing wild, or perhaps reaching his normal state, during a circus performance, harming two persons and finally being shot at continuously and with anger, until dead.

PETA also presents several videos and interviews with former RBB&B circus employees telling of the bloody beatings and routine abuses. Archele Hundley is one of them:

I saw handlers deliver a beating … for 30 minutes. She was covered?with bloody wounds. I’ll never forget her agonizing screams. Please?never take your children to a Ringling Bros. circus… The abuse was not just once in a while—it occurred every day. The elephants, horses, and camels were hit, punched, beaten, and whipped by everyone from the head of animal care down to inexperienced animal handlers hired out of homeless shelters.11

Bob Tom, who worked with RBB&B for two years, was fired allegedly for complaining about the beatings. Both Tom and Hundley told the story of elephant trainer Sacha Houcke, who at one point even inserted the bullhook into the elephant’s ear canal and pulled on the handle using both his hands and his whole body weight. The elephant bled profusely and was left crying in agony. They also said trainers rub dirt into the bullhook wounds to hide them from the public, that elephants are kept performing even if they suffer from painful arthritis, that they are only unchained when the public is around, and that the circus knows in advance when the US department of Agriculture inspectors are coming. Their transport conditions, they say, are nothing but miserable, with no space to move or breathe properly and with temperatures that rise up to 100oF.12

All this completely contradicts the environment and care RBB&B claims to give their worshipped animals. In the Frequently Asked Questions section of their website, Bruce Read, Vice-president of Animal Stewardship, answers questions about the training and transportation of its animals:

Training is simply a matter of encouraging the elephants to do what?comes naturally on cue to music. We accomplish that by reinforcing?their natural behaviors through repetition and reward. We only include animals in our show that are comfortable with the routines and performing… The animals at Ringling Bros. travel in custom-designed?train cars and other vehicles that are well-ventilated and designed to?meet the specific needs of each species. Most of the train cars are outfitted with misters or sprinklers for hot weather, heat for cold weather and plenty of clean water and floors that are built to provide cushion and comfort.13

?Read also said that the average life expectancy for Asian elephants is forty-five years, and he proudly mentioned that RBB&B has 12 elephants that are forty-five or older. This statement is easy to disprove. The average life span of an elephant is about seventy years.14

The king of the jungle vs. the king of the world

There are many explanations as to why men believe themselves to be superior to beasts. Religion, the universal justifier, might provide defense for animal abusers. Let us think, for example, about the Judaeo-Christian story of Creation, where God gave everything to man for his use: “And God blessed them, and he said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and increase, and fill the earth and conquer it. And reign over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the earth.’”15

Creationism can therefore function as an excuse for the misuse of the living things that God provided humans with. But what good would we be doing in the eyes of God, if we treat what he created as a mere object of entertainment? In the Creationist’s perspective, did God create the animals to feed us or to use them as a tool for power and please our need of amusement? If you are pious enough to believe what the Bible says, you should also be able to understand that God does not intend nor defend the infliction of suffering for his creatures. What we should absorb from sacred books like the Bible, is not the strict rules, nor the black and white idea of superiority, but the sense that it was all created together, and it should promote a coexistent way of living. We feed the animals and the animals feed us. Without them, there is no us. Creationists should not forget that God also punished Adam and Eve for defying the power of nature by the unrighteous act of eating the forbidden fruit.

Animals’ lack of reason is the most common vindication for people who harm them for their economical benefit. Where has our ability to reason taken us? Dr. William Lauder Lindsay gives us his perspective in Mind in the Lower Animals, in Health and Disease. He labels man’s alleged intellectual and moral superiority as overrated. While men can be superior in certain aspects of mental and moral endowments, animals are certainly superior to men in many others. Lauder enumerates the four elements of superiority of men over the animals: Power of speech, use of hands, production and application of fire, and knowledge in the arts of writing, printing, metallurgy, glass-making, and cooking.16 As he explains, animals “exhibit a manifest superiority to whole races of classes of man, both civilized and savage, in… respects, which include the noblest of the human virtues.”17 He lists twenty-seven aspects, twenty-three more than those proving man’s dominance. Some of these are sympathy, benevolence, love, fidelity, obedience, sobriety, strength of will, moral sense, and administration of public affairs.

This means that our reasoning does not make us better; sometimes it even makes us worse. With time, we seem to be losing the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, or gaining apathy and the potential to ignore it. While we may acquire factual knowledge, there is a clear intellectual degradation and loss of virtuousness that becomes evident in our handling of the world we live in. Perhaps if animals were the ones ruling countries or running the economy, there would be no terrorism, no wars, and no global warming. Animals might not be smart enough to multiply and divide, but they are, ironically, more humane.

A false change in direction—the trick

People are increasingly aware of the potential danger circuses and zoos are causing animals. Activist organizations such as PETA are always looking for new proof of circus abuse. RBB&B knows this, thus their advertisings and documents are directed towards their intention to save animals. After all, even if they end up winning the legal case, they risk losing spectators; no parent wants to explain their children why there are people protesting in front of such an amazing place like the circus. In 1995, RBB&B’s corporate parent, known as Feld Entertainment, established the Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC). It is a 200-acre Asian Elephant breeding and research facility in Florida.18 Their slogan is: “Endangered species? Not if we can help it.” They have been successful in the breeding part; about twenty- five elephants have been born there since 1992, more than anywhere else in North America.19 An unspecified portion of Ringling’s ticket and concession sales goes to the CEC. We should consider, nonetheless, that all of these elephants will remain captive, and, of course, the best ones will eventually be trained to form part of the performing family. Ringling also helped found the International Elephant Foundation back in 1998 and advised other programs, but most of their “conservational” money is invested in animals they raise themselves so that they will not have to buy them when they need a replacement for an old or deceased elephant. Debby Leahy, the director of captive and exotic animals at PETA, is sure that the lives of these animals born and raised at the CEC “will be filled with chains and bullhooks.”20 Is it worth it, then, to procreate a life full of suffering and pain? When asked why Ringling directs its effort to breeding instead of habitat conservation, Barbara Pflughaupt, their national press representative, replies: “Habitat is another thing. We’re not a conservation organization. We’re a circus responsible for the care of our animals.”21

PETA is not the only group constantly after the circus life. Many independent protestors post their thoughts in discussion boards or post their videos on YouTube. One user, “elephantsinthewild,” documented a local channel news coverage from San Francisco (KTVU) that featured RBB&B’s mistreatment. In it, anchorwoman Leslie Griffith notes: “Ringling Brother’s elephants are often seen… endlessly rocking back and forth. The experts of the Oakland Zoo say it is a reaction to trauma and stress, and to being chained for hours on end.” When asked, a circus employee cannot clearly explain it, and nervously defends this behavior as “a way of shifting their weight.”22 The poverty of this argument impresses me. I find it insulting that they think of the public as ignorant enough to believe this. But as it turns out, we are, for even if we know they are lying, we are not making anything about it.

We are the clowns

Why do we keep doing this? We are supposedly smart enough to notice that the animals are not acting naturally. There is enough evidence for us to open our eyes to reality, but the families keep showing up and the industry keeps making money.

[The circus] developed at least partly out of the human desire to marvel at superlatives, and yet to see human beings undaunted by them. At the circus we get to see people and animals that can be rated the largest, the smallest, the fastest, the fattest, the most ferocious – or any other superlative – and then to let the clowns make us laugh at them; and at ourselves, for being so impressed.23

These are John Culhane’s words, which he gives away in his book The American Circus: An Illustrated History. If he’s right, circuses are there because human beings like extremes and admire those who are fearless of them. We like to see the impossible happen. Most of all, we like to see that we have made the impossible happen. The lion did not learn to jump through rings of fire by himself. Humans, the superior race, used the reason other animals don’t have to teach him how to do that. We don’t care if he wants to do it or if he feels the slight burn every time he makes the jump. In the surface, the lion is what impresses us, but deep inside, we are only impressed by our ability to control him and make unbelievable things happen; we are only impressed by ourselves.

If we don’t care enough for the rest of the sentient creatures in the world, we should at least care for ourselves. The fact that human beings harm and abuse of animals the way they do at these circuses for the mere entertainment of the public and the production of money leaves a lot to say about the human race. Carl Hagenbeck saw the use of the bullhook as a way of educating the animals into morals of respect and understanding. In the wild, each species respects the other; predators eat their prey for food, but you will never see a zebra trying to teach a giraffe how to live his life. A group of monkeys will not come together to try to dominate the other species. Animals even respect humans; they don’t beat us to make us do something we don’t want to do. Recall the documentary where the little boy fell unconscious and the gorilla slightly caressed him, as if worried. Some species can even feel sympathy for the rest. We are the ones who are being disrespectful by depriving them of their natural lives and treating them as our slaves.

Hurting these animals has a deeper effect on us than we might think. Frank R. Ascione makes the connection between all types of human violence in Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse. “Although it is true that animal abuse may not cause violence to people, it may make it more likely. For example, abusing animals may desensitize the perpetrator to suffering in general and reduce his or her capacity to empathize with a potential victim, human or animal.”24 The way we treat the animals reflects our attitude regarding the world; if you treat them with anger and violence, you are likely a violent person. Hate only generates more hate; if you scorn any innocent animal to the extent that these trainers promote, you are prone to scorn another human being, even in your own household. Disrespect toward animals only means disrespect toward life itself.

Hurting sentient creatures is not smart and does not prove our reasoning; it is only foolish. Even if circus tamers choose to be cold, bitter and violent, they are only hating and hurting their main source of income. The human race might be superior in the capacity of taking control over whatever we set our minds to, but we certainly have a lot to learn about the community-driven life of the animals in the wild. So instead using our intellect to harm them, we should observe them with respect and admire their genuine and incorruptible characteristics. The good use of our reason, and the capacity to learn from observing them is what would truly show superiority over beasts.


1. CLJustice, Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey Circus commercial, 29 sec., from YouTube, 2007, (accessed April 21, 2008).

2. John Culhane, The American Circus, An Illustrated History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990), 393.

3. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, Belloboration (Video Highlights), 32 sec., from Ringling, 2008, MPEG, (accessed April 21, 2008).

4. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, “Over the Top,” Ringling, (April 21, 2008).

5. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, Over the Top (Video Highlights), 30 sec., from Ringling, 2008, WMV, _Hats_Off.wmv (accessed April 21, 2008).

6. Wikipedia, “Carl Hagenbeck,” Wikipedia, (April 21, 2008).

7. Hugh Elliot, Beasts and Men (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), 118.

8. Hugh Elliot, Beasts and Men (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), 129.

9. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, “Amazing Animals,” Ringling, (April 21, 2008).

10. PETA, “Animals Are Not Ours for Entertainment,” Circuses, (April 21, 2008).

11. PETA, “Former Ringling Bros. Circus Employee Speaks Out in New Public Service Announcement,” Circuses, (April 21, 2008).

12. PETA, “Ringling Employee Tells of Bloody Beatings, Routine Abuse,” Circuses, (April 21, 2008).

13. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, “Get the Answers,” Feld Entertainment, (April 21, 2008).

14. Paul MacKenzie, “Did You Know…,” Elephant Information Repository, (April 21, 2008).

15. Genesis 1: 26-30. (New Revised Standard Version)

16. William Lauder Lindsay, Mind in the Lower Animals, In Health and Disease (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880), 119.

17. Ibid.

18. Mia MacDonald, “All for show?,” E: The Environmental Magazine 14, no. 6 (2003).

19. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, “Get the Answers,” Feld Entertainment, (April 21, 2008).

20. Mia MacDonald, “All for show?,” E: The Environmental Magazine 14, no. 6 (2003).

21. Ibid.

22. Elephantsinthewild, Elephant abuse at the big top at Ringling Brothers circus, 7 min.; 35 sec., from YouTube, 2007, (accessed April 21, 2008).

23. John Culhane, The American Circus, An Illustrated History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990), 13.

24. Frank Ascione, Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1999).


Ascione, Frank. Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1999.

CLJustice. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus commercial. 29 sec. From YouTube, 2007. (accessed April 21, 2008).

Culhane, John. The American Circus, An Illustrated History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.

Elephantsinthewild. Elephant abuse at the big top at Ringling Brothers circus. 7 min.; 35 sec. From YouTube, 2007. CKxNpnP5pM (accessed April 21, 2008).

Elliot, Hugh. Beasts and Men. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909.

MacDonald, Mia. “All for show?” E: The Environmental Magazine 14, no. 6 (2003).

MacKenzie Paul. “Did You Know…” Elephant Information Repository. (April 21, 2008).

PETA. “Animals Are Not Ours for Entertainment.” Circuses. (April 21, 2008).

PETA. “Former Ringling Bros. Circus Employee Speaks Out in New Public Service Announcement.” Circuses. (April 21, 2008).

PETA. “Ringling Employee Tells of Bloody Beatings, Routine Abuse.” Circuses. (April 21, 2008).

Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey. “Amazing Animals.” Ringling. (April 21, 2008).

Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey. Belloboration (Video Highlights). 32 sec. From Ringling, 2008. MPEG, (accessed April 21, 2008).

Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey. “Get the Answers.” Feld Entertainment. (April 21, 2008).

Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey. “Over the Top.” Ringling. (April 21, 2008).

Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey. Over the Top (Video Highlights). 30 sec. From Ringling, 2008, WMV, _30_PAID _Hats_Off.wmv (accessed April 21, 2008).

Wikipedia. “Carl Hagenbeck.” Wikipedia. Carl_Hagenbeck(April 21, 2008).

William Lauder Lindsay. Mind in the Lower Animals, In Health and Disease. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.

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