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Are Animal-Rights Activists Really Concerned About Animals?

Tom Wilson and Ben Cohen have already written on these pages about how European liberals, supposedly in the name of animal rights, are banning kosher (and halal) slaughter. In such cases, concern for animal rights seems to be a rather thin veneer for other political objectives that have far more to do with intolerant ideologies than they do with protecting animals.

In the United States, animal-rights activism has found other pet causes but, at its core, activists seem less interested in protecting animals than in broader political agendas.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a group that kills more animals in the name of rescue than some slaughterhouses do in the name of food, has decided to target the circus for the sin of utilizing animals in entertainment. “Animals aren’t actors, spectacles to imprison and gawk at, or circus clowns,” the organization’s website declares. “Yet thousands of these animals are forced to perform silly, confusing tricks under the threat of physical punishment; are carted across the country in cramped and stuffy boxcars or semi-truck trailers; are kept chained or caged in barren, boring, and filthy enclosures; and are separated from their families and friends—all for the sake of human ‘entertainment.’”

What’s wrong with entertainment? And if that entertainment actually teaches children about animals, why is that bad? NYCLASS, another self-described animal-rights organization which has been leading the charge to ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City, has also recently stepped up its efforts to ban Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from New York City. Much of the accusation of animal cruelty–especially toward elephants–is nonsense, and criminal nonsense at that.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus probably does more for elephants than any other American organization, entertainment or otherwise. Barnum & Bailey sponsors a 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation which helps protect and treat elephants. Indeed, it has become the most successful breeding program in the Western hemisphere.

Feld Entertainment, a family-owned business which owns the circus, names the elephants after company CEO Kenneth Feld’s family members. Bonnie the elephant, for example, is named for Bonnie Feld; Nicole, Alana, and Juliette—three daughters active in the business—all have elephants named after them. Feld has also named elephants after Irvin, his father, and Shirley, his late aunt. When new elephants are born, Feld sends out birth announcements, hardly the move of a company that doesn’t prioritize the well-being of its elephants.

Do the circus elephants do tricks and entertain? Sure. But what self-described animal-rights activists don’t mention is that when elephants retire or are removed from the circus, they often become bored and depressed. At the circus, they are healthy and stimulated. Asian elephants have been a working animal for thousands of years. What animal-rights activists want to impose is as unnatural as demanding that humans no longer partner with dogs. To send elephants back to Asia—or to not have removed them in the first place—is also counterproductive given poaching and the danger of extinction in their native habitat.

When and where abuses occur (and having seen zoos in the Middle East, they do occur), it is important to take a stand. But bored liberals or rapacious charities often manufacture grievance in order to justify their continued operation. The circus may have become a useful rallying cry for activists to throw their weight around and try to impose their values and political agenda on others. Whether one cares about the circus or not, it’s important to take a stand because—if politicians and others take the activists at their word—they not only undercut the animals’ actual welfare but they embolden political activists to increase their demands, a slippery slope that ultimately will bear results as in Europe, where animal-rights activists infringe on fundamental rights, individual choice and, ultimately, religious liberty.


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