The Elephant's No Longer in the Room: Four Lessons Animal Rights Groups, Zoos and Circuses can Learn From the Shift at Ringling Brothers

FILE - In this April 9, 1999 file photo, a pair of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus elephants cross Eighth Aven
FILE - In this April 9, 1999 file photo, a pair of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus elephants cross Eighth Avenue in front of the Main Post Office in New York. The circus will phase out the show's iconic elephants from its performances by 2018, telling The Associated Press exclusively on Thursday, March 5, 2015 that growing public concern about how the animals are treated led to the decision.(AP Photo/Lynsey Addario)

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is ending more than a century where elephant acts were a defining mark of the circus.

It is a smart business and political move, one that reflects a deeper change in cultural preferences. Even if animal rights activists motivated the change, in the long run it will likely attract more people more frequently to the circus, and reduce political and reputational risks to the company.

But one important question remains: will the end of elephant shows by 2018 actually benefit Asian elephants -- not just those in captivity, but the large numbers in the wild, and the natural areas they inhabit? That depends on whether both sides can place intellectual honesty above political posturing, and begin to work together for a common aim.

For example, right now, our organization and others are seeking to protect critical habitat to hundreds of Asian elephants and other endangered animal species, by setting aside a million hectares of Indonesian rainforest. The magnificent creatures that roam these grounds face imminent danger from illegal poaching and rainforest destruction. While their cause is less visible than that of the elephants we see in captivity, they may soon die painful deaths, in great numbers, unless action is taken quickly.

The quickest way to build a campaign to save the elephants most at risk would likely be for us to target a corporation we can blame, then ask donors for money to help us stop them. I have raised money and built campaigns for environmental causes for decades, and like it or not, negative campaigns like that raise 2.5-times the money and five times the media coverage of positive ones.

But the destruction of elephant habitat, like most problems, is not primarily caused by demons, corporate or otherwise. These problems are systemic -- the result of complex cultural, political, and marketplace factors. Selfish corporations, inept bureaucrats, apathetic people and all the others we love to blame may perpetuate the problems, but they seldom cause them.

Now that Ringling Brothers has committed to end its elephant shows, for example, it would be tempting for many advocates to go for the kill, and seek to shut down every circus, zoo, or aquarium where animals are put on display for entertainment.

But here is the elephant in the room: continuing to demonize animal venues would be a sell-out of the movement's higher mission. Circuses and zoos can be among the strongest and most effective allies for animal protection, if we mix pressure with praise, and collaborate with integrity.

These venues inspire a love of exotic animals among millions of children and families. They enable thousands of professionals to dedicate their lives to animal protection. They support hundreds of millions of dollars to research and protect animals and their habitats. They create compelling marketplace incentives to protect natural ecosystems. In these ways and others, they help build and sustain the non-profits that advocate the protection of animals and the earth.

In Ringling's case their entertainment endeavors have been a way to support enrichment and conservation. Twenty years ago Ringling and its parent company Feld Entertainment opened an Asian elephant conservation and research center in Central Florida for their retired elephants. The circus has channeled millions of dollars into a successful breeding program, scientific research about diseases and afflictions that impact Asian elephants' survival in the wild, and partnerships with countries like Sri Lanka to preserve and grow the species in their native habitat.

Critics might say their center is not virtuous enough, but many can't say how the dollars and dedication to protect endangered species will emerge, without the support of the institutions that popularize their causes. They need to focus not on slapping down some of the hands that feed the movement, but improving their dexterity -- their capacity to live up to their promise.

When advocates overreach by demonizing animal venues, they may attract more attention to their cause, but they also risk discrediting it. In 2014, the Humane Society and other animal rights groups paid $25.2 million in settlements to the parent company of Ringling as a result of lawsuits filed by the animal rights groups that were found frivolous and without merit.

Advocates could accomplish much more by combining forces with the many allies working within zoos and other animal venues, to raise the bar on animal protection across the world.

Here is one way. Today's market for animal-oriented experiences can be divided between two large groups: a traditional market of people who want to be entertained, amused, and amazed, and an emerging market of people who want to be enriched, engaged, and inspired.

People who seek entertainment first -- part of the people-centric traditional marketplace comprising 54 percent of the total -- think of animals as sources of amusement. They delight in animal shows that feature elephants, tigers, dolphins, and seals doing things they would never do in nature.

People who seek enrichment first -- part of a more nature-centric market now comprising 46 percent of the total -- think of animals as sources of inspiration. When they see animals in unnatural settings doing unnatural things, their reactions range from disinterest to mild irritation to utter moral outrage. This is just not right, the most strident in this group feel.

But these two large groups are not incompatible. The entertainment-first market can readily be inspired by enriching experiences with animals. The enrichment-first market knows that pure entertainment has value as well, and is not inherently disrespectful to animals.

Only a small portion of the enrichment market objects to animal-focused entertainment that they would see at circuses and zoos. Those who object most passionately are not just concerned about overt stress or abuse of animals. At a higher level, they feel that being entertained by captive animals is intrinsically offensive -- a holdover from the days many believed that nature and animals existed solely to feed, clothe, and amuse people.

I understand their view, but perhaps to make their point most clearly, they draw the line too rigidly. Entertainment can be enriching, and enrichment can be entertaining. Animals can engage directly with people, to the benefit of both. Driven by the marketplace and politics, more and more animal venues are providing entertainment in ways that enrich and inspire their visitors, and protect individual animals as well as the whole species and the ecosystems that sustain them.

Smart operators of animal venues know that, in the future, amusement-only forms of entertainment will offend an increasing share of the marketplace, and trigger risks to reputation that will ultimately make them uneconomic. Successful operators will learn from the changes made by Ringling and others, and adapt their offerings to blend enrichment and entertainment in ways that enjoy the support of almost everyone.

So whether you are an animal rights activist or an executive of an institution in which animals are exhibited, the questions to ask are:

  • Does each experience create a sense of awe, respect, reverence, and wonder for animals and nature - or does it merely excite and amuse?
  • Does each experience reveal the animal's deeper nature, and create a sense of empathy that connects us - or does it diminish their nature in order to amuse us?
  • Is each experience safe, healthy, respectful, and enjoyable for the animals, trainers, and visitors? Does each engagement between people and animals provide benefits to both?
  • Does the venue, in its operations, research, and philanthropy, systematically advance the state of research, knowledge, and protection of animals and natural systems?

The answers to these questions require collaborative, open-minded, respectful dialog between scientists, animal advocates, donors, and operators. Division and demonization will undermine all their objectives.

The two markets for animal-centered entertainment are not inherently at odds. In fact, they serve to remind circuses and zoos of their deeper purposes, and to unite them with their current adversaries.

As other animal venues follow the example set by Ringling Brothers, they will find that entertaining people while advancing a deeper mission -- a mission much like the one that animal rights groups embody -- will secure the support of both halves of the market, and earn the social license to operate that will keep them thriving through the 21st century.

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