“It’s fun for children. It’s not that bad,” said a woman with her several young children as they walked past our signs that read, “Cruelty is NOT entertainment”, “Ban Circus Animals”, and “There’s NO excuse for animal abuse.”
That got my blood boiling.
Last Sunday, I went to my very first protest: it was against Ringling Brothers ... the saddest and cruelest show on earth. For those who don’t know, their tagline is “The Greatest Show on Earth.” This is coming from a circus that punches its animals in the face, whips them and beats them with electric prods to get them to perform unnatural tricks. They also confine animals to tiny cages as they travel across the country for up to 100 hours straight (conditions so grueling that a 2-year old lion named Clyde died from intense heat after being transported through the Mojave desert). Kids can barely stand to be on the road for a few hours; now imagine what it’s like for a wild animal.
It was clear that woman had no idea about what goes on backstage at circuses. If she had spent even a minute Googling "Ringling Brothers animal cruelty", she would have found story after story, and video after video of the extreme abuse inflicted on circus animals. She also would have come across stories of former Ringling Brothers employees who quit their jobs and spoke out against them after witnessing and reporting the violence inflicted on animals. If she had, she would not have said, "It's not that bad."
Shedding Inhibitions and Speaking Up
After hearing that woman say that, I couldn’t help but shout, “It is terrible. They beat them to perform tricks! They beat their animals into submission!”
And there it went. My usual inhibitions … gone. Anyone who knows me will say I’m quiet, shy and introverted. It’s unlike me to approach a complete stranger on the street (especially someone who doesn’t want to engage in a conversation), much less raise my voice at him or her.
But it made me realize that standing up for someone else—someone helpless and suffering whose despair is ignored—is a lot easier than standing up for myself.
I was always apprehensive about the idea of leafleting, approaching complete strangers on the street, trying to say a lot with a few words, and the pressure of getting a powerful message across within seconds. I was afraid of being rejected: people waving me away with their hands before I could even complete my sentence.
And yet, despite rejection after rejection (sprinkled with at least some eye contacts as people listened, or thank yous for handing them leaflets), I wasn’t really fazed. I knew not to take it personally—they weren’t rejecting me, they were rejecting my message. They spotted our group of protestors 100 feet away and probably already made up their minds to avoid us, act distracted while walking past us, or straight up deny the truth we were exposing.
There was this one particular family that gave me hope. It was a woman with about four or five young children. A few of her children looked up at me with inquisitive eyes as I was talking and passing out leaflets (that's more than I can say about the majority of adults who wouldn't even look me in the eyes). One of the little girls stopped and asked me if she could have a leaflet after I gave her sister one. After they walked past me, the little girl handed it to her mother. About 15 minutes later, I saw the same family walk back toward the direction from which they came. I so wanted to believe that somehow our message got through to them, and that they turned away from the circus they initially planned on attending.
My hope was also renewed after a conversation I had with a woman who had just come out of a fitness convention next door. I handed her the leaflet and she initially seemed a little skeptical, and asked me if there were actually any videos documenting the abuse. I appreciated that she was open and genuinely curious. I told her that just a quick search online would draw up many stories and videos of circus animal cruelty. She nodded as I told her about the former Ringling Brothers' employees who quit their jobs and spoke out against them after witnessing animal abuse. She told me many people attending the circus that day probably won't turn around because they were already there with their families. I agreed and told her that we're there to raise awareness because many people simply don't know the truth. It was an enjoyable, respectful conversation that I hope to have more of in future protests or everyday exchanges when speaking up for the animals.
I learned that protesting isn't necessarily about changing hearts and minds on the spot. It's about raising awareness and educating the public, planting the seeds of truth and allowing them to germinate. It's one of the biggest lessons I learned at the recent Animal Rights National Conference I attended. That protest allowed me to see that idea in practice. As one of the protestors told me, sometimes they survey people after the show, and some people will say that as they were watching the animals on stage, they couldn't help but think about what protestors had told them prior to the show.
Maybe that circus will be the last one that some families ever attend. Maybe those who saw us that day will be curious enough to look up "circus animal abuse" online. Maybe the kids will tell their friends and classmates what they learned. And maybe the parents will have a change of heart, and realize that there are other ways of helping their kids appreciate animals in more natural environments like wildlife sanctuaries.
Even though I didn't see anyone tear up their tickets, I still walked away inspired and reenergized. I was inspired by the positive interactions I had that day, by the few glimpses of open hearts and open minds, by the few passersby who told us they agreed with what we were doing, and by being a part of something bigger than myself. But more importantly, I walked away with hope--something every animal rights activist needs, especially when the suffering and despair of animals can seem so overwhelming.
How to Help Circus Animals
The biggest thing you can do to help is to avoid attending any circus that uses animals. Spread the word to your friends, families and coworkers. It's important to educate others about the abuse that goes on behind the scenes at circuses.
Start or sign and share petitions to help other circus animals around the world. Here are a couple: