Those elephants in the room

There are traditions and there are relics. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus gives expression to both.

A generation or two ago, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers glutted on lavender cotton candy and watched as Gunther Gebel-Williams, touted as the “greatest animal trainer of all time,” draped lions around his neck like a boa. There were jugglers, high-wire motorcyclists, acrobats and that hyper-packed clown car. And there were elephants, one of the most intelligent and emotionally complex animals on Earth, magically coerced to perform on command.

Circus language crept into our vocabulary. You don’t want to be compared to a clown or a trained seal. Absent a “three-ring circus,” scribes wouldn’t have an easy cliché to analogize politics.

There remains the (literal) elephant in the room: Trainers use bull hooks, chain at least one leg to limit mobility, and ferry elephants side-by-side on trains to dozens of cities every year. From an animal rights perspective, it’s barbaric. It also presents a colossal public relations challenge.

Creative branding is an art form. Ringling Brothers’ breeding operation has the altruistic title, “Center for Elephant Conservation,” replete with a fancy website and a “commitment to caring.” Regarding Gebel-Williams’ legacy, the company underlines that “Gunther demonstrated to all that humans and animals could work, live and thrive together in harmony and should respect one another, thus forever banishing the outdated notion of ‘man versus beast.’” (“Beast” better describes the folks with the chains.)

Last week, a media release from Comcast Arena did its best to gild the cages. Spectators can soak in “the power and concentration of the Shaolin Warriors of China,” and enjoy the “whirling energy of the high-flying Cuban Comets” and the “graceful flexibility of the Russian super-vixen Lightning Rods.” The circus seems to import its talent (with a Cold War flavor, no less).

There’s also this ironic kicker: “What Ringling Bros. show would be complete without a menagerie of exotic animal, such as dogs, ponies, camels and, of course, the world famous Ringling Bros. performing pachyderms.”

Ponies and dogs are not exotic and “pachyderms” is a fancy way of saying “elephants.” It’s 2014. Those performing pachyderms deserve emancipation, a fancy way of saying freedom.

Ringling Bros. travels to Everett in September and families will decide for themselves. In an evolving marketplace, it’s adapt or die. And consumers vote with their feet.

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