Have you ever used one of the various apps that allow for editing digital photos? On most of these programs, you can slide buttons that change the brightness, contrast and color saturation of the image.
The composition stays the same, but the appearance of the photo can look significantly different.
The digital editing process is analogous to what has happened over the last couple decades in regard to public perceptions of animal welfare, and that is apparent in the wake of the announcement this week that Feld Entertainment, owners of Ringling Bros., is canceling its circus operations after nearly 150 years.
Of course, you knew that the animal activist groups would claim 100% of the credit for ending the “outrage” of the typical circus show that featured big cats, elephants, horses, dogs and monkeys.
Even the media was quick to attribute the Ringling Bros. demise to PETA and HSUS.
“It was one of the biggest victories yet for animal welfare activists,” was how National Public Radio’s online report analyzed the announcement.
First quote in their story? “Ringling Brothers was a target of ours from the very beginning,” said Lisa Lange, PETA’s senior vice president of communications. She then identified the issue that is arguably the underlying reason that Ringling folded its tents.
“People no longer have a taste for that kind of entertainment,” Lange told NPR. “But we believe it’s because they now know what that kind of entertainment costs those animals.”
An Artifact from the Past
That’s part of the reason. But the other factor that PETA, et al, won’t discuss is that changing tastes are not limited merely to how far public perceptions about animal welfare have changed. Like those photo editing apps, society has collectively slid its proverbial button toward greater awareness about how animals — especially endangered wildlife — are treated.
However, an argument can be made that the essential core values people have always held regarding how animals should be treated haven’t been radically altered, merely shifted somewhat toward an expanded definition of what now constitutes animal “welfare.”
Have you read “Black Beauty,” the story of a beautiful horse poorly treated by a succession of cruel owners? Everyone sides with the horse, of course, but few of us recall that the novel was written 140 years ago.
Concerns about animal welfare weren’t invented by PETA.
But let’s take a step back and consider the origins of circus.
As noted, it was a 19th century invention, geared to amaze farm folks and working class families with a glimpse of exotic animals, which prior to the invention of movies and television, existed only in most people’s imaginations.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the America population was heavily weighted toward tens of thousands of small towns and rural areas in which farm families practiced what amounted to subsistence agriculture.
In fact, as this quote from an 1860 U.S. Census Bureau report on the state of agriculture noted that not only was the majority of the population involved in farming, one of the country’s biggest challenges back then was recruiting enough farmers to till the available acreage:
“In the United States, vast areas of improvable and fertile lands invite the labor of a sparse population. [There is] an enormous area of farm lands, and this great dearth of manual labor.”
In the 1860s and for many decades afterwards, people routinely spent their entire lives in the small geographic vicinity where they were born and raised. When families weren’t plowing fields, milking cows or baling hay, their entertainment options were limited to singing hymns in church, reading books (for those who could read) and for children, playing jacks or hopscotch in the dirt surrounding the farmhouse.
Can you imagine the thrill of a circus train rolling into some small town, and the excitement of seeing, often for the only time in their entire lives, elephants, tigers and other animals that people had only viewed in grainy black and white photos in some magazine or newspaper?
Not to mention acrobats, daredevil high wire walkers, clowns and — let’s not forget the other enduring appeal of P.T Barnum’s vision — a sideshow of circus freaks for people to gawk at with fascination.
Fast forward to a century later, and not only was the postwar U.S. population far more concentrated in urban areas, but television and air travel had introduced a much more mobile population to intimate, detailed imagery of the world’s animal kingdom.
Yes, there was still interest in seeing elephants or lions up close and personal, but is it really a “thrill” when you’ve watched endless hours of documentary footage on the habitats and lifestyles of every animal species that ever appeared in a circus act?
Moreover, the public’s entertainment options have expanded exponentially, including such spin-offs on Barnum’s original concept as Cirque de Soleil. A traditional circus, no matter how aggressively promoted, is but one of dozens of choices available on any weekend for any family with discretionary income and leisure time on its hands.
Yes, PETA can crow about its use of social media to demonize the way animals are handled in a circus. There’s no way a traveling entertainment show can approximate the living conditions of an animal sanctuary or even a modern zoo.
In that sense, circuses were an easy target, like puppy mills, dog fighting or veal crates, as powerful images for activists to leverage public perceptions.
But absent any placard-carrying protestors marching outside the venues where Ringling’s events were booked, without one Facebook post about the “horrors” of elephants wearing leg chains, and minus a single cent of fund-raising spent to convince people that circus trains were death on wheels, the institution we know as the Big Top was as much a casualty of modern times as it was a victory for animal extremists.
The circus was a relic of another era, and that it survived for a century-and-a-half is a testament to the showbiz genius of its inventor.
It died not just from activist protests, but simply from old age.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.