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How Oakland Got Animals Out of the Circus (TWICE)!

100 years ago, after learning about the inherent abuses perpetrated against animals forced to perform in circuses, Oakland’s most iconic figure, Jack London — author and social activist — wrote “I have a strong stomach and a hard head, but what turns my head and makes my gorge rise is the cold-blooded, conscious deliberate cruelty and torment that is manifest behind ninety-nine of every hundred trained-animal turns. Cruelty as a fine art, has attained its perfect flower in the trained-animal world.”

London called upon the public to “inform themselves” of the “inevitable and eternal cruelty” inherent in animal acts and urged them to walk out during animal performances. Though he died soon after, his words inspired a Jack London Club comprised of one million members who distributed literature outside of circuses, wrote to the press and circus management, and indeed walked out of the circus during the animal acts.

It worked.

In 1925, Charles Ringling was quoted as saying, “There has been enough criticism by the public of wild-animal acts to warrant us in withdrawing them, as a quite common impression is prevalent that tigers, lions, etc. are taught by very rough methods, and that it is cruel to force them through their stunts.” Ringling announced that it had “discarded” animal acts “for all time.” Sadly, after five years, they resumed the use of animals in their circuses to provide cheap entertainment to the public during the Depression.

100 years later, at the end of 2014, an ordinance to ban the use of bullhooks on elephants was brought before the Oakland City Council. Bullhooks are sharp weapons used to hurt and intimidate elephants to force them to perform unnatural acts for the amusement of humans. Despite the money Feld Entertainment, the owner of Ringling Bros. Circus, spent to fight this ban, over 100 compassionate citizens showed up to speak on behalf of elephants, and shortly after midnight, the ban passed.

“This is the right thing to do. It’s just that simple,” said Councilmember, then Mayor-Elect (now Mayor) Libby Schaaf.

“I don’t need to have an elephant stand on one leg to see how cute he looks….I don’t learn about the elephants over at the circus while I’m sitting there entertained.” said Councilmember Noel Gallo.

“We’re not going to look the other way when it comes to torturing animals. We shouldn’t be teaching the young folks in our city that it’s okay to harm animals for our enjoyment. That is just unacceptable,” said Councilman Dan Kalb.

And in her last city council meeting as Mayor, Jean Quan presciently stated, “I am certain that the day will come when we will see a ban on elephants being used in circuses altogether.”

Three months later, in March of 2015, Ringling announced it would be removing elephants from their circuses. Without being able to use pain, fear, and intimidation to train elephants, they wouldn’t be able to force large, intelligent, autonomous beings to act in ways that are anathema to their very nature.

As cities and counties across the United States began drafting legislation similar to that which passed in Oakland (and first in Oakland’s inspiration, Los Angeles), Ringling recognized how expensive it would be to fight in local jurisdictions across the nation.

A year later, Ringling announced they were closing — for good, and indeed May 2017 saw their last performance. A victory for compassionate people everywhere, but really…a victory for animals.

This is one very powerful example of how local politics matter. Often, laws passed at the local level inspire similar laws at the state or even federal level, but here they acted as a microcosm reflecting a greater public perspective: that animal abuse is unacceptable even when shrouded in tradition and masked by spectacle.

Of course, years of protests and leafletting by activists outside of circuses contributed to Ringling’s demise and to the public’s growing distaste for circuses with animals. As did undercover footage obtained by organizations to prove with video the abuses that take place behind closed doors. As did education, as did litigation. But in the end, it was the decision of local city council members and the activists working with local legislators that led to the closing of a 150-year animal-abusing institution. That’s the power of local political action.

The Greatest News on Earth: Ringling Circus is Closing!

(This photo of the elephant is one I recently took in Botswana; free and with his family — the way all wildlife should be.)

While enjoying a delicious vegan dinner at Millennium Restaurant in Oakland with a friend and fellow animal advocate (Kristie Middleton), we got a text: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was closing its doors! We laughed. We cried. We toasted.

We were two of the many activists (full props to Cheri Shankar, activist extraordinaire in Los Angeles) involved in working with Oakland city council members in 2015 to ban the bullhook, a weapon that inflicts pain and fear upon elephants to make them perform such unnatural acts as standing on their head. Oakland passed the ban, and soon after, Feld Entertainment, owner of Ringling Bros., announced that they would be removing elephants from their shows. A victory for elephants, no doubt.

But there was more work to do, and activists in cities around the country wasted no time working to ban all wild animal acts from circuses. Facing the prospect of spending millions of dollars defending an archaic and cruel form of entertainment, Ringling Bros. announced that it would be closing its doors altogether. A major victory for animals, no doubt, but much work remains to be done.

Entire countries have banned wild animals acts, including Mexico, Peru, Greece, Netherlands, and many others, and the United States would do well to do the same before another opportunistic company seeks to fill Ringling‘s void. This will probably be impossible on a federal level with the current administration, but we can do it state by state. At least for today— for a few days—we can at least revel in the awareness that the arc of history bends toward compassion and that thousands of animals will be spared humiliation, confinement, fear, and violence. 

[Tweet “Ringling Bros. said ‘this is not a win for anyone.’ I beg to differ. This is a win for the animals.”]

Jack London for the Animals
We were not the first residents of Oakland to express concern about the treatment of circus animals. 100 years ago, after witnessing the abuse that takes place against performing animals in circuses, our most iconic figure, our own Jack London—author and social activist—wrote two novels (Jerry of the Islands and Michael, Brother of Jerry) to spread awareness to the public about performing animals. In the foreword for these novels, he wrote, “I have a strong stomach and a hard head, but what turns my head and makes my gorge rise is the cold-blooded, conscious deliberate cruelty and torment that is manifest behind ninety-nine of every hundred trained-animal turns. Cruelty as a fine art, has attained its perfect flower in the trained-animal world.”

Because of the awareness he created, the public spoke up, and in 1925, Ringling Barnum and Bailey Circus withdrew all trained animal acts from their performance schedules and remained animal-free for almost five years. Unfortunately, they brought back the animals, but this time, they’re closing their doors for good.

Feld Entertainment, the owners of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has said in press conferences that animal rights groups should not claim the circus’ closing as a victory—that “this is not a win for animal rights activists. This is not a win for anyone.” I beg to differ. This is a win for the animals. This is a win for every individual who won’t be sold or bred only to live a life of prodding, performing, abuse, fear, and pain. This is a win for the animals, who have—vis a vis their own suffering—put $2.7 billion into the pockets of Kenneth Feld, which is what he is purported to be worth. This is a win for every animal who has ever been separated from their family to be exploited and forced to perform for humans. 

This is a win for animals, indeed. And once you’ve properly toasted, it’s time to put away the champagne, and write some more history. We’ve got more work to do.

For the animals,