A few summers ago I attended a tent circus in my small western New York town. It was the Carson & Barnes circus, of Hugo, Oklahoma, and in addition to being pretty entertaining, it got me rethinking one of Life’s Important Questions. But before I get into that, a word about the circus itself.
Billed as the world’s largest tent circus, Carson & Barnes does one-day stands only. In just a few hours, by man- and elephant-power alone, 60,000 square feet of what had previously been an unremarkable field was transformed—covered over by a glorious 40-foot-high red-and-white striped tent pulled tight over a jutting endoskeleton of poles, cables, pulleys, and wires. By late afternoon, sleepy lions and tigers, reclining near the tent entrance in well ventilated quarters, were eyeing the day’s first circus-goers. We ambled past friendly sheep and goats, pretty ponies, somber elephants and camels, well groomed stallions, and costumed human members of this hard-working Oklahoma troupe. Then for two hours, Carson & Barnes’ five rings hosted a procession of clowns, acrobats, and animal acts that engaged my attention as fully as they might have engaged my grandparents’.
Carson & Barnes, we were told in many ways, prides itself on treating its animals well, and indeed—despite (as I later discovered) allegations by animal rights activists to the contrary—I saw nothing to suggest that they do not. The owners push this point, doubtless because of their adversaries, but also because we are all conditioned to viewing captive animals with pity, and their captors with suspicion. We all know that animals would be much happier in the wild, free to come and go as they choose, magically healthy, well groomed, and well fed most of the time. I generally subscribe to this view, expect a twinge of sadness on encountering captive wild animals, and find my conscience working overtime to justify their captivity.
But the sight of Ms. Lioubov Koudriavtseva’s basketball-playing Siberian bears got me rethinking the question.
Ms. K’s bears really raised my eyebrows. I was surprised that such athletic skills, generally considered attainable only on American asphalt, could be acquired in the Moscow State Circus, where these bruins reportedly picked them up. The bears, one of which was built like a point guard and the other like a power forward, proved to be more than adequate dribblers, and the point guard—if you cut him some slack on shooting distance—was no slouch as a free-throw shooter. These were definitely stand-up bears. The heretical question formed itself unbidden: “Is a non-basketball-playing bear in Siberia happier than a bear who can dribble with either paw and hit 2 out of 3 foul shots?” This question is not a no-brainer, Wild Kingdom fans. In fact I now think a cogent argument can be made that a captive bear, surrounded by doting humans—a bear who has been asked to use his or her cerebrum and cerebellum in new and unusual ways—is happier than a bear who’s learned nothing more complicated than swatting salmon out of a Siberian stream, weather permitting.
My thoughts drifted over other dangerous shoals: Is an elephant who is asked to roll his ponderous bulk over and play dead in worse shape than his cousin in Kenya who really is dead because he ran into a poacher’s bullet? I don’t think so. Timothy Frisco’s Performing Pachyderms may not know it, but there are worse things than having to play dead in a circus. Is a Bengal tigress who reclines in an airy cage, a tigress that one day finds herself in, say, Wheeling, West Virginia, and the next day on the shores of Lake Erie, is she having a better or worse time than her mother back home who’s still dodging crazed humans with axes, chainsaws, traps, and rifles? All she has to do is snarl on command, balance atop a big rubber ball, or leap through a hoop from platform to platform, all to the applause of an adoring crowd. Not much of a life you say? How does your own stack up?
And how about the Friesian stallions? I thought. Sure, they’d probably prefer to be growing fat and sloppy in some Friesian pasture, eyeing the mare across the way, with absolutely nothing pressing on their agenda. Certainly not dancing a pas de deux, as Miss Cindi makes them do. But dancing a pas de deux takes brain power, and (if we may judge from our own experience) most animals with a brain larger than a golf ball are happier using it than not. That’s what’s bad about prisons and zoos.
I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that the Carson & Barnes circus was in some ways liberating for these uniformly sleek and healthy-looking animals. They get their three or four squares a day. No one’s shooting at them or trying to skin them. They get some mildly stimulating work to do: jumping, prancing, giving rides to kids, playing dead. And best of all they get three months off every year, back at the farm in Hugo. While in winter quarters they still have the doting humans, still get fed, face no gunfire, and are taught even more ways to use their brains. Could things be better in the wild?
One Carson & Barnes act did in fact put me off, but only briefly. It was Princess Roxanna and her Almost-Human Gorillas. Escorted by Princess Roxanna, two AHGs arrived in a cramped, wheeled cage drawn by an elephant. Not surprisingly, on being let out of the cage the two primates became immediately active: One shinnied partway up an aluminum pole in an unsuccessful bid to dislodge some bananas at the top, and the other launched into a chest-thumping King Kong routine in front of the grandstand.
“What’s life like for such an intelligent animal,” I asked myself, “cooped up in a circus? It must be very bad. Gorillas shouldn’t be here. They should be out on some Congolese mountainside, grooming one another for binoculared tourists.” You can imagine my relief when it was revealed that the AHGs were more than almost human—they were indeed humans in gorilla suits! It was a Carson & Barnes joke.
Suddenly it seemed OK to me that they had been kept in a cage and were acting like lunatics. They’re not animals, I reasoned. They’re only humans.