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Articles:

Circuses and Charities: Cruelty for a Cause?

Published 12/15/04
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 35 Number 4, Winter 2004

Across the country, there’s no shortage of worthy organizations working for good causes, striving to make life better for humans and other animals.

Large, national organizations as well as small, local groups dedicate time, energy, and funds for everything from helping disabled children walk to aiding communities in the wake of natural disasters.

In doing this good work, however, some otherwise benevolent charitable organizations may be unwittingly supporting cruelty when they sponsor circuses that use elephants, tigers, and other captive wild animals as “performers.”

While at first glance it may seem that circuses and fundraising are a natural fit — particularly for groups that work with children — closer inspection shows that the opposite is true. There is nothing natural about the life of the wild animal confined in a circus, and nothing charitable about the way these animals are mistreated.

Uncharitable Treatment

Using animals in circuses is an outdated, unnecessary, and cruel practice that poses risks both to the animals and to human audiences. Circuses that use animals also send to children the message that it is acceptable to exploit animals for amusement and financial gain.

In circuses, wild animals are caged, chained, held captive and forced to perform demeaning “tricks” that go against their natural instincts. Standard circus industry practice is to use antiquated, harmful devices such as bullhooks and whips to dominate and control large wild animals. Such cruel practices occur even in those circuses that benefit popular charities. The most worthy cause in the world can become tainted and guilty by association when it supports “entertainment” that mistreats animals.

One of the most well-known groups that traditionally uses animal-circuses as fundraisers is the Shrine of North America. Through its 191 chapters, the Shrine does invaluable work to help children and others. Unfortunately, many chapters also sponsor circuses that use animals, a practice that casts a shadow over the organization’s beneficial reputation.

It is important to note that there not actually a “Shrine Circus,” per se. Rather, Shrine chapters sponsor existing circuses, often using the local Shrine chapter’s name in place of the circus’s name. For example, in the past, the Shrine of Sacramento sponsored Circus Gatti; a portion of the circus proceeds benefited the Shrine programs.

As is true of every circus that uses animals, circuses that Shriners sponsor and to which they lend their name have dismal records of animal care. These circuses have been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, such as failure to provide veterinary care, adequate shelter, nutritious food, and clean water, as well as failure to handle animals in a manner that prevents trauma and harm and ensures public safety.

A Dubious Education

Large, national charitable organizations are not the only ones that support circuses that use animals. Your own community’s Chamber of Commerce or educational institutions may also profit from the mistreatment of animals.

It’s a sad irony that schools and libraries, the backbones of our nation’s educational system, often benefit from the funds raised by cruel animal circuses. Circuses that use animals have no educational value; the only lesson they teach is that it is acceptable, even enjoyable, to contain and control wild animals. Children who witness wild animals in a circus setting do not learn about the true behaviors, habitats, or challenges they would face in the wild, nor has it been shown that circus audiences care about the natural life of a wild animal. Further, no research has shown that individuals attending circuses are particularly interested in the population status of a species or what steps are being taken to ensure its survival in the wild. Circuses teach people to exploit animals, not to respect them.

Another problem with schools and other groups using animal circuses as fundraisers is the risks such shows pose to public safety. Exotic animals used in circuses are wild animals, and often exhibit unpredictable, dangerous behavior.

For example, in 1993 during a Shrine-sponsored circus performance in Little Rock, AR, a Siberian tiger with the Jordan Brothers Circus escaped into the stands and bit a 13-year-old girl, causing seven puncture wounds on the back of her leg. In 2002, at a Shrine-sponsored Circus Gatti in Sacramento, CA a tiger refused to return to his cage. According to a police report, the audience was evacuated and a SWAT team was called in before the tiger was tranquilized and returned to his cage.

Some incidents have more tragic ends. In May 1997, in Carrolltown, PA, the St. Benedict Catholic School held a fundraiser using the Franzen Brothers Circus. Around 300 people were in attendance, 200 of whom were children. Shortly after the show began, one of three tigers in the ring with trainer Wayne Franzen pounced on Franzen while his back was turned.

To the audience’s horror, the tiger grabbed Franzen by the neck and dragged him around the ring. Franzen was dead by the time circus personnel managed to get the tiger off him and back into his cage. An official from the school that sponsored the circus told the Associated Press, “They tried to beat him off, but they couldn’t get him off until he was dead. The little girl who was the announcer was very disturbed, she was in the ambulance crying.” An emergency counseling service was set up at the circus to help the children cope with the trauma of witnessing a man’s violent death.

Compassionate Fundraising

API recommends that animal advocates reach out proactively to their community charities, libraries, and schools to inform them about the hazards of using animal circuses as fundraisers, before the groups decide to host such a circus.

If you do discover that your local school, Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, Elks Lodge, Shrine, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club, or any other group is planning to host a circus that uses animals, here are some steps you can take to educate group leaders:

  • Find out which circus the local group will be sponsoring. The true circus’s identity may not be widely publicized, but event organizers should know the name of the circus they plan to bring to town.
  • Contact API for a fact sheet about the individual circus. These sheets list citations of the Animal Welfare Act, as well as incidents in which animals in the circus escaped or attacked. You can present this information to the organization as evidence about why they should not sponsor a circus that uses animals.
  • Contact the organization sponsoring the circus either by letter or phone, or ask for a meeting to discuss your concerns. Point out that benevolent, charitable groups should not support events that may harm others, including animals. Animal mistreatment, public safety, and a lack of educational value are all reasons why animal circuses are not a good fundraising idea.
  • Write a letter to the editor of your local paper and to circus sponsors, citing your concerns about using wild animals as fundraising tools.
  • If the show proceeds as planned, stage a peaceful demonstration outside the event venue. Contact API for flyers that you can distribute to the public to let them know about the problems with circuses that use animals.
  • Follow up with event organizers and offer to work with them on future animal-free fundraising events.

Fortunately, many choices exist for organizations that want to engage in conscientious fundraising, including animal-free circuses. These spectacular shows continue to gain in popularity, and no wonder! They employ talented human performers with out-of-this-world abilities, who are always capable of putting on an unforgettable show. To receive a list of circuses that do not use animals, give us a call at 1-800-348-7387.

Another option for schools and communities is to host a festival or carnival, complete with rides, food, entertainers, and games. Proceeds from such events can benefit many different groups.

Modern fundraising is even going “extreme.” If an organization is up for an adrenaline rush, it can raise funds by offering donors the chance to participate in skydiving, bungee jumping, or mountain biking. For those less inclined to “thrill seek,” groups can sponsor a fun run/walk, bake sale, train tour, theatrical event, or music concert, many of which could accommodate any age group.

When charitable groups, communities, and individuals use their imaginations, they’ll discover a seemingly endless list of ways to benefit people and animals. There is simply no need to use cruelty to support a good cause.

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