The End of a Circus Tradition in the USA

This article has been waiting and stewing for more than 40 years within me.  And now, the time has come for me to express what I’ve only shared with a few along the years.  I have no love for the circus.

There, I said it.  I don’t care if it sounds un-American or not.  And I’ll tell you why.

As early as 10 years old I have been to see both the Ringling Brothers and Circus Vargas shows several times.  Not because I asked my parents to take me, but because they just presumed all children want to, and should see, the Circus.  The only time I voluntarily chose to go to see the circus as an adult was on a date in Mexico.  And partly to see a Mexican circus for comparison.  (A kangaroo got loose during the performance and escaped into the crowd.  It took over 15 minutes for several men to wrestle it back under control.  People freaked out at the though of getting kicked by a 5 foot tall creature with very strong legs.)

Now, it’s likely you will hear other editorials on this subject soon now that Ringling Brothers has announced they will be shutting down their circus in May of 2017.  And most of those responses are from the PETA group.  I’ll state right now that, while I do enjoy animals and have had my share of pets I was fond of, I do not align myself with the many ’causes’ and extremes that PETA considers mandatory to prove one’s love for animals.  Sorry, I’m just not militant about it and will continue to eat beef, pork and chicken on a daily basis.  So, suffice it to say that my expressions here are not from that camp.

Thinking back to my observations of several circuses over the years, two items glared out at me so much that I could not fully enjoy or get lost in the intended circus realm of entertainment.

Elephants, Monkeys and Tigers

I love biology, always have.  I’ve been forever fascinated with all living things.  From micro-organisms to elephants, how their bodies work and behave.. I love biology.  I also have always had a fascination with monkeys.  They just amaze me in every way.  So, from my perspective, what I saw at the circus were animals taken out of their natural habitat.  I knew that the amount of time they spent “free” doing a performance was fractional to the amount of time they spent in a cage behind the tents or during transport to the next city.chimps-circus-natural  This is not how these wonderful animals were meant to live their lives.

Chimps are very social animals.  They need to live in tribes and there’s a whole support system they need to live a normal, chimp life.  Now, granted these circus chimps had plenty of interaction with their handler and were around maybe one or two other chimps.  But they are not exercising the way they would in the wild.  Also there’s the fact that as juveniles they become more aggressive and need the tribe to place them in their pecking order related to the other chimps.

In short.. all I saw as a kid was a chimp who wasn’t going to enjoy the freedom of swinging through the trees as I’d seen in the National Geographic films.  Same for the apes, elephants, lions and tigers.  A life on the road is about as far from their normal life as they could get.  At least in a zoo there might be a simulation of their environment.  But here, their entire life was cement, iron bars and chains in a brightly lit environment full of musical noise.  And all I could feel as a kid was empathy and sadness as I looked into their eyes for the life they’d lost.

Putting Their Life on the Line

The second thing I saw which hit me the wrong way (and still does outside the circus) were human performers risking their lives for a living.  Yes, there are safety nets for most of the trapeze events.  But some were done purposely without a net for dramatic effect.  And while throwing knives and axes at a human being on a spinning target has great tension attached to it, I could hardly justify any of this as necessary entertainment.  It’s just not worth someone losing an arm or a kidney (or a skull).

Jugglers, clowns, dancing pretty girls and even the side-shows I had no issue with.  (Not that I trust clowns standing within five feet of me, but that’s another issue.)  The games of chance and carnival rides.. all in good fun.

But the risk these people took, granted.. voluntarily, just could not be justified within me.  A fireman, a police officer, rescue team, those I could see justifiable in risking their lives. knife-throwing-circus Those professions sought to save a life.  But putting one’s life in danger of death or disability for an afternoon show under a tent.. I felt dirty just sitting there being a part of it.  My only relief was when it was over.  I did not enjoy that tension any more than seeing a dentist’s needle come at me while trapped in a chair.

Some might say, “It’s a tradition.  The circus has been around for well over 125 years.”  Okay, I’ll grant that it has a history.  But it’s history began at a time when there were not the entertainment options available now.  It was a way for people, often immigrants new to the United States, to earn a meager living.  Never saving enough to move on and buy a home.  Just enough to get by until the next show in the next town.  Saying it’s a tradition is pretty much like saying, “Well, we’ve been making this mistake for well over 125 years so.. that makes it normal.”  I just don’t buy that reasoning.

I remember a time in 1980.  A close friend of mine and I got it into our head that maybe running off to live with the circus for summer vacation would be a great way to end our senior year.  We were both pretty good jugglers and figured we’d try to get in as clowns.  So off we went to the circus which happened to be set up the next city over.

The first problem was, for me, that I was only 17 that year.  But my friend was already 18, so they only interviewed him.  I followed him around as we were referred from one trailer to another until he went in for an interview with whoever is in charge of the “Clown Division”.  It was a short interview of maybe 10 minutes.  My friend came quickly out and said, “Let’s go!  Not a good plan.”  It turned out that in order to become a working clown, this manager of clowns had certain requirements.  One of them being a willingness to do sexual favors for the gay clowns, including himself.  Thus ended our circus endeavor before it ever got started.

And so now, after over 125 years of ‘circus tradition’, Ringling Brothers will be folding down the Big Top one last time.  They cited the fact that ticket sales and overhead made it a non-viable business.  Frankly, I’m surprised the circus lasted this long and I foresee any remaining circus outfits following suit.

So, no.. I’ll not be one of those shedding a tear over the end of the circus tradition.  Instead I will once again breathe a sigh of relief that it is over.  What will become of the many performers and staff as they become unemployed?  Likely it will be a hard transition into a new phase of employment.  That’s life and it happens any time an industry lets employees go.  It’s a sad thing but, just like the automation of various industries which left people without jobs, it’s an inevitability that just has to be faced.  It’s a harsh reality, no doubt about it.

As for the animals, hopefully they will be sold off to zoos or relocated to open-range sanctuaries.  Finally get some semblance of the life they’ve been denied all these years.  It’s the end of the circus but, life will go on even if the show does not.

Editor; lifegoeson.net

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Author: Henry Velez

Henry Velez is a writer, traveler and vlogger currently living in the Philippines. He has written extensively on social issues, relationships and travel.


  1. Yup. Says it all. May all circuses join freak shows and gladiator combat, along with public executions, into the trash can of history.

  2. Henry – As society has become more receptive to placing domesticated and wild animals on a status par with humans, was this not the expected outcome of the circus industry? In addition, the costs associated with care and handling has become very prohibitive. Let me digress a little from the subject matter. These prohibitive costs have come to our homes as well. The cost in caring for a beloved pet is forcing many families to buy health insurance covering the pet. Our communiities used to offer free clinics accessable to low income pet owners and it also served the purpose of protecting public health. I love dogs and kids but now I am older and don’t have the energy or resources to raise either like I once did.

    1. Your comment comes on the heels of news I just received from a close friend of mine just last night. He was walking in the park (here in the Philippines, where I live) and a large dog tore into him. (Rottweiler) It was no small bite, but a large gash almost six inches long and down below the fat tissue. That day’s care amounted to over $1,000, paid for by the dog’s owner. Most likely there will be no civil suit as my friend is a reasonable man and the owner volunteered to cover all medical expenses.

      However, had this happened in the States, most victims would have been on the phone with a lawyer before exiting the emergency room. For the dog owner, he’d be looking at losing a huge part of his assets over.. having a dog.

      I am of the same mind now that I am in my 50’s. I want a simpler life with the least amount of liability as possible. Owning a dog no longer fits into my scheme of things.

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