Saturday, May 23, 2009

Circuses good for elephants?

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is awaiting the decision of a lawsuit that charges them with the abuse of elephants used in their shows. For over nine years animal rights activists have documented footage that shows elephants being tethered for long periods of time and trainers violently using bullhooks to teach them routines. ASPCA attorneys are arguing that these actions violate the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Watch the Today Show's segment on the lawsuit, which includes the perspective of Kenneth Feld, the chief executive of Feld Entertainment, and PETA Vice President Dan Mathews:

Feld not only purports that the elephants are treated humanely, but also asserts that the circuses are "helping to save an endangered species." While it may be true that circuses are the primary site of Asian elephant reproduction, (as factory farms are the sole site of genetically-modified turkey reproduction), Feld is using the rhetoric of endangered species to exploit animals, a technique that seems to be the primary purpose of this category. The constituent members of the "endangered species" list are species that are seen as desirable for human ends (for entertainment, visual pleasure, agribusiness, etc.). Species are constantly coming into and out of existence, so we create an arbitrary line when we create legal clauses for the protection of Asian elephants, Blue Whales, and the Snow Leopard, but not for the Pashford pot beetle. From a utilitarian perspective, the preservation of a species is usually an unjustifiable position as it comes at the expense of individual interests.

Glitzenstein, the ASPCA attorney featured in the clip, advocates a problematic moderate position: Ringling Bros. should continue to operate and use animals in their shows, but we should "make sure that something is done to improve the lives of these animals." As usual, the ASPCA does not critique the underlying assumption that these animals should be used for human entertainment at all, but takes on the most mainstream viewpoint. It seems, however, that Ringling would not be able to effectively use elephants without the bullhook (or some similar torture device). Take a look at this clip from Earthlings that shows how the bullhook is actually used:

The piercings from the bullhooks are clearly not like superficial "mosquito bites," as the handler on the Today Show suggests. They are deep stabs that are meant to drive the elephants insane. Getting rid of a torture device will inadvertently bring an end to the effective use of elephants in circus stunts, as there is no way to coerce the animals to do these tricks without the threat of serious physical harm. The lingering question of a victorious court decision is what new mechanism Ringling Bros., could employ that will serve the same end as the bullhook.

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