American exceptionalism does not extend to the circus. The claim of exceptionalism in relation to the big top belongs to Bolivia, Greece, the Netherlands, and some ten other nations. They have distinguished themselves from the international community through a heightened sense of empathy, expressed by imposition of a ban on wild animals in circuses.
England and Mexico are on the verge of joining this compassionate fraternity, but unconscionably, we have a long way to go. The closest we have gotten is an animal welfare bill still incubating in Congress. Introduced by recently retired Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., it would establish a federal ban.
Meanwhile, the best that can be said is that we have scattered jurisdictions across the country with local prohibitions. Major cities such as Boston and New York still welcome traveling circuses featuring wildlife animal acts.
It is shameful that we are lagging in taking national action to outlaw these exploitative activities. Nature has physically and temperamentally programmed most wild animal species to roam freely in expansive natural habitats. It is inhumane to keep such creatures cooped up in cramped cages or stalls except for brief periods of often painful training to learn repetitive tricks, and fleeting moments on stage to perform them. Circuses routinely separate mothers from babies, and subject these creatures to partial starvation as part of the conditioning regimen to ingrain submissive obedience.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that as a kid, I cheered the dancing elephants and was thrilled as the lion tamer put his charges through their routine.(Actually, I remember cringing at every snap of the tamer's whip directed at the big cats, but that's as far as disapproval went.)
What I did not know then is the toll this daily existence takes on circus wild animals, truncating their normal life span, and because of relative inactivity, leaving them a feeble vestige of what they would be in the wild.
If circuses want to feature synchronized dancing, hire a bunch of chorus girls to fill the void. They would be cheaper to feed than the elephants. If animal acts are so important to a three ring extravaganza, stick to dogs. In virtually all cases, they are domesticated breeds that can much better tolerate the constant close human contact and tight confines of a traveling circus.
There is another reason to terminate the use of wild animals in the circus. Many of the creatures have become threatened with extinction in the wild, with lions, tigers, and elephants being cases in point. Humanity has a moral obligation to preserve to the best of its ability the biodiversity of the planet. Hopefully our joining the current handful of nations in outlawing circus wild animals would inspire the rest of the international community to get on board and eliminate the practice altogether.
As for zoos and safari parks, they can escape the bulk of the criticism leveled at the circus if they meet two conditions: provide at least some semblance of a natural habitat for their menageries; and convincingly demonstrate that threatened species in a captive breeding program are being raised primarily for release into the wild.