Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus this week announced plans to phase out elephants due to the complaints of animal-rights activists regarding the well-being of the beasts. Acrobats flipping thirty feet above the hard ground sans net and lion tamers kissing the king of the jungle on the lips don’t similarly move the activists into action.
Who will rescue us from the humans who rescue the elephants from the humans?
We lose a lot when we allow the world savers to pursue their ambitions unimpeded. They never achieve what their messiah complexes set them toward. Worse still, they often leave the planet they promised to rescue in need of rescue.
One currently witnesses the tail lights of American muscle cars—the Mustang, Corvette, Charger—fading off into their dark night. Don’t fret. It’s for the best of causes: saving the planet from imminent, overheated doom. Some people believe that valuing miles-per-hour more than miles-per-gallon will turn Manhattan into the Mohave. (Lately, it’s resembled Minneapolis.) Similarly, cars resembling, and even called, Mustangs, Corvettes, and Chargers will still roll off the assembly lines. They just won’t rumble on the highways as powerfully as they once did.
One can’t indict killjoy progressives for killing all the joy. Progress (regress?), independent of any political end, results in much upheaval, and it’s often a matter of perspective as to whether the benefits of the upheaval outweigh the drawbacks. If the cancer cells eating away at one’s body could talk, they would label the multiplication of their ranks “progress.” The host would beg to differ. The circus goer and the circus protester likewise see show elephants differently.
Even revolutionary change of a technological rather than a political variety causes terrible harm amid myriad advantages. People reveling in the benefits often refuse to acknowledge any costs as though doing so would repeal the innovation. Much that we enjoy erased much that we enjoyed.
The Internet killed the used bookstore. Caller ID killed the prank phone call. The birth-control pill killed the pleasant noise of playgrounds, neighborhood relievo games, and the spontaneous outdoor activities that eventually yielded to adult-created, adult-monitored, indoor “play dates.” Radio killed vaudeville. The iPhone and the Xbox killed literacy.
“Change” in the rhetoric of politicians stands as a uniformly positive force. But even essential change, such as puberty, wreaks havoc. “The presence of a global population of juveniles spells trouble for everybody,” Eric Hoffer presciently noted in a before-the-flood moment in the mid-1960s. “No country is a good country for its juveniles, and even in normal times every society is in the grip of a crisis when a new generation passes from boyhood to manhood.” Everywhere but our imaginations does change leave casualties.
This proves true even in the fantastical world under the big top.
J. Tithonus Pednaud chronicles an earlier casualty—what we might call “circus freaks” but he affectionately dubs “the human marvels” at their eponymously named website— of circus do-gooders. “Public perceptions changed and the average spectator thought individuals were being exploited or mistreated,” Pednaud notes of the oddities. “That was, of course, not the case.”
Rather than saving the pencil-neck geeks and bearded-lady freaks, activists just did not want to see them. “The shift absolutely hurt them financially,” Pednaud explained to me, noting that “freaks continue to work, albeit not in the circus”—and probably not in customer service or numerous other fields, either.
He guesses a fate worse than the status quo for the 43 elephants displaced by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s edict. He imagines the members of the Proboscidea family “shifted into some other venue of entertainment or perhaps transported to areas of the world where people are less sensitive.”
Costing $65,000 a year each to support, the Asian elephants won’t likely find the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as generous as the people at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. If the tens of thousands of stray dogs and cats euthanized by PETA could bark or meow, they wouldn’t call their liquidation “progress.” The elephants’ trumpets might issue a similar “thanks, but no thanks” to their interspecies admirers.
One imagines the circus ringleader a bit like Burma imperial policeman George Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant.” Rather than doing what they ought, both do what the mob demands. Unfortunately for the ringleader, it’s not the happy crowd under the big top but the angry one outside that dictates his actions.
Perhaps elephants in general prosper from the decision in the long run. Their natural environment sits under an Indian sky, after all, and not an American tent. But like so much change—something lost, something gained.
We are the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular
Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula
We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity
God save little shops, china cups, and virginity
Is it too much an affront against tradition to prevail upon Ray Davies to add a line about circus elephants?