The elephant in the room

Promo shot from Ringling Bros

Two sides of the circus: Above, a promo shot from Ringling Bros.; below, a local billboard paid for by Carolina Animal Action.

I almost met an elephant once — or an elephant’s knee, to be precise. I was on the back of a motorcycle gliding down a hill in India when we hit traffic. A small team of pachyderms in fancy paint was hauling some sort of building supplies down the highway like a fleet of slow-moving tractor-trailers. The guy steering the bike brought us within touching distance of Jumbo’s leg before coasting away.

I was instantly smitten. Which is why I have a hard time knowing what to think when the circus comes to town, and the elephants (along with horses, dogs and humans in sequined spandex) parade to the Civic Center to the cheers of enthusiastic onlookers — and the boos of animal-rights protesters.

Local billboard paid for by Carolina Animal Action

Photo by Jonathan Welch

Not that my close encounter makes me any sort of expert. But what I do know is that with the advent of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s new show, a cozier (and more portable) one-ring production, the circus is now likely to make more frequent stops in Asheville. And with the big top come some elephant-sized questions about The Greatest Show on Earth’s four-legged performers.

Bears in tutus

The fliers for the circus are up everywhere, at places like Ingles and K-Mart, hung low enough to catch the attention of the under-10 crowd. The brightly colored handbills feature a clown, a stilt walker and a certain archaic sensibility that references a time gone by.

Other fliers around town announce the “Ringling Bros. Circus Protest,” though these are more likely to be found outside Greenlife Grocery or tacked to the bulletin board in the Eagle’s Home Studio — places frequented by folks who probably weren’t lining up for circus tickets anyway.

Brian Newman, production manager for the Ringling Bros. “gold tour” (the show coming to Asheville), would like to convert that portion of the population. “The circus is a wonderful opportunity to escape, to get away from all the concerns that live in your mind and experience the release of laughter,” he offers, promising, “You’ll leave smiling.”

But Leslie Armstrong of Carolina Animal Action, the group staging the protest, isn’t smiling. “If a child goes to the circus, they’re not seeing [an] animal in its natural habitat,” she insists. “In the wild, elephants don’t stand on their heads. Bears don’t ride bikes or wear tutus.”

In fact, advocates of animal-free circuses argue that using nonhuman performers is so last century. Modern traveling shows such as Cirque du Soleil, Lazer Vaudeville and the Russian American Kids Circus focus on acrobatics, athleticism, comedy and artistic prowess.

Sure, those elements can also be found in a Ringling Bros. production, but the traditional big top has to work hard to shake a certain sense of hokiness. The newly created one-ring production, with its clever tag line of “saving the day from the everyday,” is a stab at modernizing, though Newman points out that “what people don’t realize is Barnum & Bailey puts out a new show every year.”

This particular edition features all-new high-wire and flying acts, contortionists and a “liberty horse act” in which the animals are directed by voice commands rather than riders.

“Because the show is one-ring doesn’t mean it’s a little show,” Newman emphasizes. “It’s much more intimate and interactive. It’s The Greatest Show on Earth — at eye level. You can really focus on the artistry of the performers.”

What a happy animal looks like

Elephant painting at Ringling Bros.

Cool … he can paint. But what if he could talk?

To hear the company tell it, the circus’s animal performers are well-cared-for. The Ringling Bros. Web site touts conservation efforts, such as a 250-acre facility in Florida for breeding, studying and retiring the circus’s Asian elephants. “Ringling Bros. is pivotal in teaching the public, especially children, about the principles of conservation and our duty to steward wisely the world’s animal resources,” asserts a company press release.

Armstrong disagrees. Ringling Bros., she contends, sends “a big, glossy PR kit to pre-empt criticism by local groups. They have a well-funded PR machine; we try to counter that. … Wild animals were not put on earth to entertain humans.”

The circus, says Armstrong, trains animals with bull hooks, whips and electric prods, keeping them in confinement and separating baby elephants from their mothers. “The reality is, animals used in circuses are taken from their homelands and not allowed to do anything that comes naturally to them,” she argues.

The national activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has compiled a list of U.S. Department of Agriculture citations issued to Ringling for animal mistreatments such as failure to provide adequate veterinary care, wounds found on the legs of baby elephants, potentially dangerous electrical wires hanging loose in a lion’s cage, tiger cages in need of repair, and improper food storage.

Asked about the citations, company spokesperson Amy McWethy said: “Ringling Bros. has an excellent record of meeting and exceeding all local, state and federal [requirements] for animal welfare. We are open to unannounced inspections.”

She added that some of those infractions, such as minor cage repairs and open feed bags, can be fixed on the spot. “Basically, Ringling has never been found in violation of the Animal Welfare Act,” McWethy asserts.

But local animal-rights activists aren’t buying it. “You need to look at the objective evidence from the USDA and former [Ringling] employees,” Armstrong maintains.

And even as both sides present detailed and emotive arguments, the elephants are marching into town.

“I know what a happy animal looks like,” says Newman, who’s constantly on the road with the performing pachyderms. “People are entitled to their opinions, but they’re wrong. I’m seeing animals that are extremely well-cared-for. [Circus] people spend a great deal of time with the animals — [we] couldn’t do that if [we] didn’t love them.”

Catch the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus Wednesday, May 31, through Sunday, June 4. Show times are 7 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday, and 1 and 5 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $12, $15 and $18; $25 for front-row and $35 for VIP seating. Call 251-5505 for info.

The Ringling Bros. Circus Protest will be held Wednesday, May 31, from 5:30-7 p.m. outside the Asheville Civic Center. Call 299-8073 for info.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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