And so, the sharp disagreements and protests occasioned in more recent years by the annual visit of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to the New York area are just the latest iteration of a long-running struggle. What's different -- and ironic -- is that, despite undeniable improvements in the conditions of many of the animals, advocates for animal welfare finally seem to be winning the argument.
That the venerable Big Apple Circus now almost exclusively employs domestic animals like dogs and horses is a good indication of this trend, as is the near-absence of animals in Cirque du Soleil, Circus Oz and other circus-inspired shows that frequent the city.
Increasing public concern about animal welfare has arguably led American circuses to institute some constructive changes in their treatment of animals. But the massive fine the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus paid to the USDA in 2011 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act suggests that serious issues persist.
Moreover, the fact is that many people, myself included, believe that wild animal acts are outmoded and often cruel. We find the sight of circus elephants being put through their paces -- beautiful, large and intelligent creatures compelled to perform silly acts to cheering crowds -- troubling.