Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chicago's own circus, City Council, once put on an elephant show

     Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had their last show using elephants in Rhode Island on Sunday. I can't claim to be particularly saddened to see the 120-year tradition end. Society changes. I used to enjoy taking the boys to the circus, and the shows were dramatic, especially the elephants forming a massive living tableau of animal bulk. But I understand that elephants are sensitive beings, and abusing them into public performance is not a particularly laudable human achievement. I'm sure feeding slaves to the lions in the Colosseum was a thrilling spectacle too, but that isn't a convincing argument against doing away with it.
    This view represents—I won't say "progress"—how about "evolution" on my part, to borrow Barack Obama's term. Ten years ago, in the wake of three elephants dying at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago City Council was holding hearings whether to effectively ban elephants in the city. I swallowed hard and attended a meeting. 
    It's a shame the aldermen couldn't have applied this zeal to shortfalls in pension funding; could have saved everybody a lot of grief. Elephants aren't the only ones who suffer. 

     Old people shouldn't live in nursing homes, where they are crammed in small, overlit rooms, often with cantankerous roommates. A few are neglected, suffering terrible bedsores, or abuse at the hands of churlish, undertrained "attendants."
     Instead, they should live out their days with their families, relaxing in wicker rockers, sipping lemonade on the wide front porches of splendid Victorian homes, their grandchildren capering around their knees.
     To help facilitate this, the City of Chicago should ban nursing homes within its borders.
     This, as best I can figure, is the kind of logic underlying arguments against allowing elephants -- either at the Lincoln Park Zoo or in passing circuses -- to reside in Chicago. Since elephants sometimes in some places are treated poorly, they shouldn't be kept in captivity at all.
     This was laid out in the City Council chambers Thursday, during a Rules Committee hearing for Ald. Mary Ann Smith's (48th) proposed ordinance to require so much free space for elephants that it would effectively ban them.
     We saw slides of elephants with abscesses on their feet. A brief, soundless, green-tinged video of a man with a hooked staff, instructing another man how to use it to discipline elephants.
     "Hurt 'em, make 'em scream," read the closed captioning, helpfully provided by PETA.
     Somehow, these incidents were supposed to jell into a general indictment. Testimony in support of the bill began -- for some inexplicable reason -- with a 16-year-old Lincoln Park High School sophomore named Francie Flannigan.
     "The elephants didn't ask to be here,'' she said. (They didn't ask to be in Africa, either, but no matter). "They are our guests. We should treat them like guests and not prisoners."
     The theater major ended by reciting from that elephant classic, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hatches the Egg.
     " 'I said what I meant and I meant what I said, an elephant is faithful, 100 percent.' "
     Ald. William Beavers (7th) responded to this curious display with a pertinent question:
     "Have you ever seen an elephant?"
     "Yes,'' said the girl. "At the Lincoln Park Zoo."
     "Anywhere else?
     "Also at the circus."
     Some three dozen other youngsters, all in identical neon green T-shirts memorializing the last three elephant inmates of the Lincoln Park Zoo, were in the public gallery, which is probably 1 percent of the kids who go through the zoo on a rainy afternoon.
     In general, Beavers provided a steady, thoughtful counterpoint, as we sailed to the realm of the absurd, acting as the Council's voice of reason (as opposed to Ald. Arenda Troutman [20th], whose rambling, incoherent speech left people scratching their heads).
     After the video, Beavers summarized the situation:
     "It's a video of one idiot, and you want to punish the whole city because you saw one person doing something."
     Patti Miles, a former employee of the Detroit Zoo, described how that zoo's elephants were shipped to a sanctuary in California -- she didn't explain why, if the elephants were so terribly abused, they nevertheless lived into their 50s, nor did she point out that the Detroit Zoo managed to make the decision without the intercession of government.
     She seemed to be speaking, not only against zoos, but against human experience of the living world in general.
     "Why is it so important to see something with your own eyes?" she asked.
     The assumption of all the pro-ban people was that there was some idealized state of nature, over in Africa, where all these elephants would be joyfully roaming if they weren't kidnapped and taken here, some Eden with no poachers, no droughts, no hyenas, no illness.
     There are 2 million Americans in prison in this country, some kept in horrendous, overcrowded conditions -- such as at the Cook County Jail. There are 600 elephants in the United States. I just don't think our priorities are straight.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 24, 2006

     Postscript: Stung by ridicule over its banning foie gras in 2005, the City Council ended up not banning elephants. In 2008, the City Council did pass a weak tea anti-elephant abuse ordinance, making it illegal "to use on an elephant any device or instrument with the intent to cause pain and injury" without mustering the courage to specifically mention "bull hooks" etc. and thus missing the heart of the matter.  The Lincoln Park Zoo got rid of its elephants, no law necessary, in 2012. 


  1. While no one is advocating for abuse of elephants, PETA does have their priorities mixed up at times.

  2. I agree. I think they're a great organization, but they can be very extreme in trying to get attention to their cause. Maybe they need to be extreme to get attention.

    Linda B

  3. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for animals, the most innocent among us on planet Earth (most animals, anyway). So the elephant in circuses ban was good news to me.

    (Love the photo at the very top of this page.)


  4. Nice to know you've evolved past that sophomoric snark, Neil.

    Bitter Scribe

  5. I don't see how well kept zoos are a problem. Some have a natural like habitat.

    Not sure if Brookfield zoo still has elephants.

    1. Private -- No, Brookfield discontinued elephants as well. I agree with you that in the proper environment it doesn't seem cruel, especially since they are in so much danger from poachers in the wild.


  6. Well they may as well not have big cats there either,following that philosophy.


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