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AGC! Teen Troupe member donning Auguste make up

My circus mentor, Nick Weber, S.J., of The Royal Lichtenstein Circus, the first modern-day performing youth circus in the U.S., was often asked by animal rights activists even back in 1972, ‘Do you have elephants in your show?” And he would respond: ‘No, ma’am, no elephants; just relevance!’

According to P.T. Barnum, they (and the clowns) are the pegs on which the circus is hung.

Otherwise, you have Cirque du Soleil or a Commedia del’Arte show.

It wasn’t that long ago, 9 months to be exact, that Ringling Bros. won an historic 14-year legal battle against the Humane Society of the U.S. (and other animal rights activist organizations) because they couldn’t prove that Ringling mistreated their elephants. Why? Because they didn’t. Click here to read the article.

In a Facebook post today, Viveca Gardner gave the discussion an insight: “Read the article before reacting. Ringling won a 14-year lawsuit after the plaintiffs were unable to prove any animal abuse and were found to have paid ex-employees to lie (to the courts). There are probably bad eggs in any business. Some people abuse their children. That doesn’t mean everyone show be banned from having children. The preponderance of evidence is that this company treated animals well, but public opinion doesn’t seem to get swayed by facts, so Ringling is getting punished for being proven to have done nothing wrong.”

It’s a sad day for the circus. But life changes and moves on. Ringling cannot carry acts that do not contribute to the business financially. Taste and times changed. Enough states were influenced by animal activists that carrying elephants on the show became a financial drain. After all, one must do what one must do to survive another day, to put on another show.

I can only talk about stuff I know and have experienced personally. The following three experiences inform my opinion about elephants in the circus: First, I had a dog when I was a kid (maybe you have one sitting across from you right now). We took it to obedience school (maybe you did, too). We got it to sit, roll over, lay down, and stand on its hind legs (did you do this, too?). Our dog traveled with us in the car. We treated it like one of the family. It entertained us, but we had to train him first. If all that sounds familiar, it’s apples and apples. That’s how elephant caretakers feel about their animals, too. (Cats are a different story).

Elephant in Nyack Circus Parade, 2009

Elephant in Nyack Circus Parade, 2009

Secondly, when I was Ringmaster for the Big Apple Circus in 1980, I had the pleasure of working with the foremost family of elephant handlers and caretakers in the U.S.: Barbara and Buckles Woodcock. I watched them day in, day out take the greatest of care with their elephant, Anna May. She was the best treated member of the troupe…not even the clowns were as well treated as Anna May. I watched with my own eyes how they cared for that being.

Thirdly, in 2009, Amazing Grace CIRCUS! presented ‘Circus-in-the-Park Extravaganza‘ – a multi-dimensional historical/educational circus event to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the discovery of the Hudson River. For the first time in over 100 years, Nyack saw a circus parade down its Main Street. We marched an elephant down the Main Street of Nyack. A live elephant. The kids in our community were able to stand next to this wonderful animal, pet its trunk, smell it and say hello to it. It was the magical reason animals were first used in the circus: for education, then for entertainment. You should have seen these kids’ eyes light up.

Most had never been to the zoo; most didn’t have a pet at home; most had only seen animals in picture books. The educational moment was priceless.

That’s magic.

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Welles Remy Crowthers – The Man in the Red Bandanna – September 11, 2001

What was even more magical was educating the kids about a brave young man who saved many, many people on 9/11 in the Trade Towers. The family of the Man in the Red Bandana partially sponsored the elephant in our event. The hero’s name was Welles Remy Crowther. Read his story here. Not only was the elephant inspiring to children of all ages during our parade, the kids got to learn about Welles and his heroics.

That’s magic.

And that was brought about by a single elephant.

Where’s the magic going to be now?