We thought the lion was having fun too | Opinion | The Press and Standard

by | January 28, 2017 5:00 pm

Last Updated: January 25, 2017 at 12:04 pm

I was eating Krispy Kreme Coffee Thins and listening to Daya (don’t judge) when the news broke: After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is folding up the Big Top for good in May. I thought maybe it was because all the clowns are now in Washington, but no — apparently high overhead and protests by animal rights advocates are to blame.
Losing a piece of Americana is sad; I still miss Ho-Jos. But Ho-Jo’s didn’t force animals to do demeaning tricks to entertain the public, so there’s that. For generations, the circus was as American as apple pie and Chevy. Parents and kids marveled at the acrobats, the lumbering elephants, the lion tamer with his whip and chair. We didn’t know any better, so we thought the lion was probably having fun, too.
As time went by and eyes were opened, people started saying, “That elephant looks depressed. The lion’s mane is falling out. If I were a tiger, would I want to be ridden by a monkey wearing chaps?”
In May 2016, after a lengthy legal battle, elephants were removed from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shows. They now live in a sanctuary in Florida, happily eating whatever it is happy elephants eat.
The good news is that now ALL the circus animals — lions and tigers and bears, oh my! — will be retired. The bad news is that some 500 circus employees are now without jobs. Again, one could recommend Washington.
I saw the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus several times as a kid. My parents weren’t circus fans:  Mom said it smelled and Dad said, “One day those elephants are going to run amok and tear up half the town.” But they took their children because that’s what you did back then: You bought your kids cap guns and Easy Bake ovens and took them to the circus, even if you just wanted to be home drinking sangria or eating Thin Mints.
The circus was where I first saw an elephant. It was thrilling, or would have been if the enormous creature hadn’t been almost catatonic. It was chained by a hind leg, staring up at the sky as it swayed back and forth. (I also saw a camel with two humps, and thought I was hallucinating.)
The clowns in the cars were funny but when they climbed into the bleachers to interact with the kids, I clung to my father and whined in terror. Once a clown stopped, blew his bike horn and squatted down to peer into my face. Before he could squirt me with his lapel daisy or yank a silk scarf from who-knows-where, Dad — the gentle, soft-spoken Baptist deacon — said, “No way, pal,” and the clown straightened up and moved on.
Back to the elephants: I went to the circus one last time as an adult, for a newspaper story. As workmen bustled around setting up, I stood by the elephant line taking notes. One of them — it was a female — shifted her weight behind me, reached out and wrapped her trunk around my waist, as gently as a cashmere scarf might settle on your shoulders. It felt like an embrace — a very smelly embrace. I patted her trunk, she let go and I left to file my story.
Because elephants live a very long time, I hope she retired to the sanctuary in Florida, where she’s eating bamboo and wrapping her trunk around other elephants. That’s what I hope.

(Julie R. Smith, who still doesn’t like clowns, can be reached at widdleswife@aol.com.)

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