In a few days, the train belonging to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will disgorge its unique cargo — human, physical, animal — near the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, and then, in time for Thanksgiving, at the United Center. The oldest and proudest of all major North American circuses has come to this big town in this big way since long before my sons were born.
But this year, there will be a difference. A change that amounts to several tons and that comes with a metaphoric weight of yet greater heft.
No elephants in the room. Nor any of the three vaunted rings.
The big cats will be there, along with dogs, horses and even kangaroos. But the signature pachyderms, long the stars of the Greatest Show on Earth, have been retired to Florida.
Which brings up a question. Will patrons still be walking past protests by animal welfare activists? Will reviewing the circus — which I have done for years — still bring a storm of angry email?
Like many people, I've never been comfortable walking or even driving past those protesters, especially since I've noticed a Chicago actress and activist, Lindsey Pearlman, in their number for some time. But I've done so as a consequence of a deep and abiding love for the art form and all of its magical performers and timeless, non-digital wonders. That has been coupled with a long-held personal conviction that Kenneth Feld and his daughters, who own and produce the show, act as much out of a fervent desire for cultural preservation, for circus stewardship, as for profit. The circus is ridiculously risky and expensive — branded, licensed ice shows themed to safe Disney products like "Frozen" are a much easier way to make money in live entertainment than trucking around acrobats, trapeze artists and clowns. Let alone elephants. This is a labor of love.
The main argument, of course, is over the role of animals in the beloved circus tradition. For years in writing about the circus, I've tried to write down the middle, acknowledging both sides of the debate, but still judging the animal acts on their own terms — or, more accurately, on the circus' terms.
Often I've sat wondering if that tiger or that elephant is happy, musing to myself how you possibly judge animal happiness, especially given the Darwinian alternative of the wild. And what of those circus animals of a type that have centuries-old working relationships with humans? Would they really be happier put out to pasture? Who could say? They look like they're having fun. And since I'm recounting those justifications, there is the further question of when some kids would ever otherwise see a big cat. Is it not conceivable a conservationist could be nurtured right there at the Greatest Show on Earth?
On the other hand, the protesters long have charged this and other circuses with the mistreatment of those aging elephants, charges that Feld Entertainment always has denied with equal fervor. There has been argument about the bullhook — to the circus community a benign form of guidance not so different from a dog's leash, but to the animal welfare community, an instrument of torture. That bullhook has been the subject of some local legislation regarding its use, making touring with elephants all the more challenging and, perhaps, an unacknowledged factor in the decision to retire the elephants.
I asked Alana Feld about her family's determination and, smartly, she preferred to cast the moment as an "opportunity" for circus reinvention and "reimagination." The new show, "Out of This World," has added an ice floor, she said, and will feature a more explicit storyline than in years past, engaging more interactively with families. The new light surface will allow for digital projections, which is a thing of the moment, and for the use of automated spotlights that will pick out performers on their own. I suppose all of those things are improvements for many; not sure that is true for me. I will have to see.
"The circus was never just about the elephants," she said. That's true. But they made a big noise, and I have always loved to watch them.
I called Pearlman a tad sheepishly and asked if she would be there protesting ast usual. I said I always felt bad as I walked past. "We understand," she said, generously. "You are doing your job."
But, yes, she and her fellow activists will be there again — focusing now on getting Ringling to remove the big cats for much the same reasons that they wanted to stop the use of the elephants. But she said that she was deeply grateful for Ringling's decision, which she sees as having been difficult for them, and thus huge.
Like most communities of activists, Pearlman said, you can find those among her colleagues who believe in revolution and some who prefer to acknowledge incremental change. She compared the situation to the debate that surrounds a company that makes fur coats out of roadkill. Some people think that buying such a coat saves living animals from terrible lives and deaths; some think that it merely extends the whole lousy culture of fur coats. It all depends on your point of view. I asked her about my feeling that kids would not otherwise see these great beasts up close if not in the circus.
"What gives them the right to see them up close?" she said.
To which one might reply, "Who has the right to determine they should not?"
Feld said the exit of the elephants should be taken as the straw that broke the camel's back (so to speak) when it comes to animals in circuses. The big cats, she said, are not going anywhere.
"People like to see them and our animals are a big draw," she said, speaking the gospel of the family showman, of the great circus tradition, of the marine park with tricks and the old-school zoo, but also arguing that the creatures of Ringling are stars who are treated with kindness, and develop warm relationships with the humans who work with them.
"We are trying to educate our audiences more about those things," she said. "You will see that in the show."
I wonder, though, if I won't be talking to a Feld again sometime soon. A Feld saying that the time had come to retire those whips and cages and (at a minimum) just go with the animals that traditionally join humans in their daily routines — even if the circus must always be fantasy, not routine. I think that would be a good thing. As President Barack Obama once said about himself and gay marriage, my views about the big cats and elephants in circuses have evolved.
There's a new touring show out there called "Circus 1903," an attraction from abroad that uses human circus performers and huge puppets as elephants. I've yet to see it, but it has got me wondering if technology now offers a way to maintain the family-friendly circus tradition of parading beasts while freeing those actual weary and wary beasts from the duress of touring for human entertainment.
Virtual elephants and lions? Not what you'd expect from the Greatest Show on Earth, perhaps, but, as Alana Feld rightly noted in our conversation, the circus would never have survived 146 years if it had not been willing to evolve.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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