Circus could score PR coup

If you live on the West Coast and want to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum &Bailey circus, you have just four cities to choose from: Everett, Portland, Stockton and San Jose. If you’re willing to consider the greater Mountain West states, Salt Lake City and Denver also will host shows.

Whereas, with the ever-growing, ever-popular Cirque du Soleil, it’s difficult to keep count of the different shows it offers in the U.S. and worldwide.

It’s a perfect example of supply and demand, reflecting changing values toward animals, and expectations of entertainment. It’s a perfect example of an industry — the traveling circus — hitting a cultural, generational and technical crossroads and either changing with the times, or detrimentally clinging to its “tradition.”

The concern for majestic mammals in captivity, in this case Asian elephants, has grown far beyond animal rights groups, (which in their black-and-white zeal can manage to irritate even those who agree with them). Educated citizens know that circus life is anathema to elephant life. That’s why cities that welcome a circus with exotic animals are dwindling.

It’s difficult to name another family entertainment show that is always met with protestors. PETA’s over-the-top demonstrations can be counted on, and circus supporters dismiss them as ranting exaggerators who want to scare children. But, in city after city, protest after protest has to have some effect.

In December, a judge ruled in favor of Ringling Bros. in a lawsuit filed by American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The judge ruled the main witness, Tom Rider, a former Ringling employee, was paid for his testimony and didn’t have the animals’ true welfare in mind, and therefore did not have legal standing to sue the circus under the Endangered Species Act.

The judge did not rule on the actual abuse charges, which were made with copious evidence documenting the treatment of the Asian elephants used in Ringling’s show.

The evidence is hard to ignore. Even the slightest understanding of these intelligent and social creatures makes it clear why the circus life is wrong for them, even if they weren’t trained with bullhooks and stuck in train cars, traveling from city to city.

While “winning” that lawsuit, it’s difficult to understand why Ringling Bros. would continue to ignore the court of public opinion. It would be a public relations coup to announce the retirement of all the endangered Asian elephants, and the addition of something new and cool and amazing. (Yes, steal from Cirque du Soleil.)

The fun of a circus is not being able to believe what you are seeing … in a good way.