On the Other Tightrope
Parents Weigh Animal Rights Ethics Against Kids' Enjoyment of the Circus

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

In the minefield of contemporary parenting -- where the developmental impact of hard-soled shoes, peanut butter and tiaras are debated passionately -- one alleged no-no this time of year strikes at the core of a quintessential childhood experience.

The circus.

Cotton candy! Popcorn! Clowns!

Ethical quagmires!

"Don't tell me they're messing with the elephants. That's terrible," said Dre Jones of the District, as he accepted a flier from an animal rights activist outside the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus show at Verizon Center on Thursday night. It was his son Cory's second birthday.

"I mean, it's the circus, you know? That's good for kids," he said. "But if they're messing with the elephants, man. Those are the strongest, biggest creatures in the jungle. You don't mess with those."

Each year, as the circus comes to town, parents who aren't particularly fanatical on either end of the animal rights spectrum are faced with the dilemma of how deeply they want to take their parenting philosophies when it comes to Dumbo.

"It's tough. A circus can be a wonderful thing. But I struggle," said McLean resident Carol Brunner, who walked a tightrope of self-flagellation and rationalization as she waited outside the circus with her 7- and 9-year-old kids.

"I know, I know. I'm a hypocrite because I know there's a problem with having animals perform," said Brunner, as she watched her kids leaf through coloring books handed to them by animal rights activists wearing elephant masks, prison stripes and shackles outside the main entrance.

"I think they understand the issues. We're going to talk about making choices," she said. "I told them we should write letters."

The two-hour show was dazzling: sequined trapeze artists flying through the air, a gilded lady flash-banging from the mouth of a cannon, clowns tumbling past. And the elephants, 10 mighty pachyderms with trunks in the air, sitting on king-size stools like giant, wrinkly toddlers.

"The circus is for the kids, and they love it," said Aisha Kearney of Landover, who brought her 2-year-old daughter to the show last week. "I remember when I was little, I rode on the elephants. That was real cool. But they don't let you ride on them anymore."

The circus is a place to see animals and humans in "a caring relationship," said Steve Payne, head of communications for Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. "The circus affords children and adults opportunities to see animals up close and personal."

Payne said the 138-year-old Ringling Bros. is known for creating generations of fond childhood memories, not the undermining of children's behavior.

Many parents interviewed at the circus last night at George Mason University's Patriot Center couldn't agree more. Toni Porcelli, who was there with her 14-year-old and 10-year-old twins, said she had no concerns about how the animals were being treated.

"I would think it is very controlled and very well maintained," said Porcelli, who lives in Stafford County.

But for years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has picketed circuses. The group has issues with the physical treatment of circus animals and the moral issue of using animals, particularly mighty and dangerous ones, for what it calls human subjugation and entertainment.

Ringling Bros. denies mistreating elephants, and during the circus's intermission, it plays a short film extolling its elephant sanctuary and training program.

The issue of whether Vienna-based Ringling Bros. is violating animal-cruelty laws will be debated in federal court this year, after U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered that an animal-cruelty lawsuit filed against the circus by several animal rights groups and a former Ringling Bros. employee under the Endangered Species Act go to trial.

But the moral debate -- whether it's good or bad for kids to see circus animals doing tricks -- is a serious parenting issue to some.

"To see a bear ride a bicycle, it is ridicule. You're really just laughing at that bear," said Mel Levine, a renowned pediatrician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written numerous books about child behavior and the way children learn. "So the question is: What's the message you're giving to kids when you take them to the circus and they laugh at animals? I think to laugh at animals is to devalue them."

And laughing at animals as they do unnatural tricks can transfer to human relationships and to the playground, Levine said.

"Why do we want an ape to act like a human? Why not have an ape act like an ape?" he asked. "There is an implicit message of intolerance. I don't think it's a long distance from ridiculing animals to laughing at other people. Then you have kids singling out and laughing at the fat kid. Or it can lead to racial intolerance."

For these reasons and more, Caitlin Hills's 19-month-old son, Cole, will not go to the circus. When his babysitter or class wants to visit the zoo, mom intends to say no.

"For me, wild animals belong in the wild," said Hills, of Capitol Hill, an animal rights activist for decades.

"I really do think of this differently now, as a mom," she said. She has protested before but now says graphic, bloody literature on animal cruelty shouldn't be handed out.

And she acknowledges the tug of the nostalgic portrait of American childhood, even though her son's circus memories will be made outside the big top, handing out fliers on recycled paper.

"I know, it seems so unfair to keep him from the zoo and the circus," Hills said. "I don't want him to be excluded from all these fun, childhood things. But I also want to raise a compassionate, caring person."

Jessica Bonilla, 11, has been to the circus about "50 times" and has always loved it, she said. The Gaithersburg fifth-grader delights in the acrobats and the animals. But looking at the elephant-costumed protesters last week took away some of her bounce.

"Now that I think of it," she said, "if the elephants aren't treated well, I really don't want to go now."

Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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