Clowns Protesting Elephant in the Room

Outside American Airlines Arena in Miami this Friday will be a pack of angry clowns. No, it's not a Nickelback concert; it's the circus. And the clowns outside won't be working for Ringling Bros. They're animals rights activists protesting Ringling's treatment of elephants.

Leading up to the protest, members of the Fort Lauderdale-based Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF) have been distributing this photo, said to have been taken by a now-deceased trainer, of a baby elephant being forced into an awkward stance.

"Those new pictures clearly show baby elephants with ropes and chains around all four legs, with three or four people at a time using metal bull hooks [heavy clubs with sharp metal hooks] and some using electric prods," Amanda Burk, project coordinator for ARFF, told me yesterday. "There is no doubt that forcing a huge animal into ridiculous, unnatural positions like sitting on a stool or standing on his trunk is painful."

Outside the circus, Burk and other members of ARFF will dress as circus clowns, bring plenty of props, and "educate patrons about the miserable life of circus animals through the use of large banners, videos, flyers and other displays." She expects about 50 volunteers.

For animal rights groups like ARFF and PETA, elephant treatment has become a marquee issue. "Circuses are one of the easiest issues to plant the seed of critical thinking," Burk says.

"We have found that people are more apt to reconsider going to the circus once in a while than to reconsider more deep-seated traditions, such as meat eating. But once the door is opened to respecting animals in the circus, ARFF hopes the natural trend is to extend respect and rights to all animals, whether they are used for food, clothing, or so-called science and entertainment."

In addition, circuses represent a battleground for the minds of American kids. "Children are particularly vulnerable to impression and identify with animals who are also under the complete mercy of their caretakers," Burk says. "When children see animals being bullied and abused, it is easy for them to internalize a message that it is acceptable to hurt and manipulate weaker beings. This effect then permeates society well beyond the realm of animal rights."

We wrote about the protest of the school board last year that included video of a trainer whipping a young elephant. According to PETA, 26 Ringling elephants have died since 1992.

This week, a federal judge ruled that such animal rights groups do not have the right to sue the circus under the Endangered Species Act. In public statements, Ringling Bros. has pointed to its own Center for Elephant Conservation, which is located in Central Florida and is, according to its website, "dedicated to the conservation, breeding, and understanding of these amazing animals."

"All circuses that use animals abuse them in one way or another because the animals suffer physical and mental pain," Burk says. "The physical pain is easy to see."

The circus will be in Miami through January 18.

We'll follow up to see how the planned protest unfolds.

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