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My Whys








Since not much happened this week, I thought it might be a good time to answer a question that's come up a lot lately.

First, real quick, this blog is not a soapbox. It's not a place where I want to start broadcasting my opinion or trying to convince people to share my viewpoint. It was always meant to be a log, a day-to-day description of my experiences with the circus. And I'd like to keep it that way :)


That said, since the elephants have left I have been somewhat more vocal in sharing my opinions and experiences, and in describing Ringling's animal care practices. Several folks, including family, have asked why I feel the need to speak out about an issue that technically shouldn't concern me (I am just "in the band" after all!). But it's hard for me to give a short answer to this. I thought it might be a good time to explain myself, even if it means soapboxing a little. Grab a snack.

When I joined the circus in 2012, I knew nothing about elephants. But seeing them almost every day during shows, during down time, at the train, outdoors, inside...I began to learn things simply by watching. I used to wonder what those dark spots were on the elephants' hips, until I saw an elephant casually leaning against a wall between shows and realized that it was a callus on her hips from a pressure point, from leaning on things. I wondered whether the elephants were chained at night, until one evening after a night out I was walking past the elephant barn and saw Luna curled up in a pile of sand, with a long fluffy padded cable attached to her hind leg, leaving her plenty of slack to move around comfortably.

As I became more comfortable at my new job, I began to get to know the veterinarians, handlers, and trainers who worked alongside the elephants. I got to see firsthand how carefully a handler would go over an elephant's feet to check for cracks in the nails or any infirmities. I saw representatives from the USDA walking into the animal compound for inspections or sitting in the audience taking notes on clipboards. I saw the elephants receiving better food than I was getting from Pie Car (no offense Pie Car). Over time I watched as Mable's trainer taught her to swing a jump rope, play the harmonica, spin a hula hoop, and more, all using simple reward and repetition training. I listened in fascination as one of Siam's trainers described trying to teach her to paint using non-toxic paint and pieces of fruit. But Siam did not like either the smell or the feel of the paint and refused to paint no matter what rewards were offered. So the training was dropped in favor of other actions that Siam preferred. I saw firsthand the attention and care that each animal received. And I got to hear lots of great stories about elephants past and present :)


(paint and fruit slices for painting practice. Photo courtesy Adria C.)

In 2013, I was offered the opportunity to participate in an animal walk. As the animals walked from the train to the arena, I and some other volunteers would stand between the animals and the onlookers, making sure people stayed on the sidewalks and holding a yellow rope to discourage anyone from dashing into the street. In return we'd get lunch. This sounded fairly easy (and also exciting!) so I decided to do it. Here is a photo that I took before my first animal walk.



Many things about that first walk were exciting and new. But starting with this walk, there were certain things that stuck with me and grew within my heart.

The first thing I noticed was that the onlookers loved it. They loved to see the animals, and even adults in the midst of a busy work day ran out to the street to watch the elephants go by. Children stared and shrieked in wonder as the elephants swung their trunks around and occasionally trumpeted. Even the police escorting us wore huge smiles and would sometimes stop to take pictures.

The protesters hated it. We had been told beforehand that there would be protesters and that we shouldn't speak to them, but I couldn't have been prepared for what they would say to us. They followed us for the entire mile-long walk, screaming insults at the handlers, at us volunteers, at the police for escorting us. Yelling as loudly as they could about all kinds of horrible things that they imagined were happening to the elephants (and the elephants only) under Ringling's care. Taunting anyone who held an elephant guide, asking whether they enjoyed hitting the elephants more with the hooked end or the flat end. And when they started running out of imagined horrors, they switched to personal insults, criticizing one handler's weight and making jibes about other handlers' appearances. In my short time on this planet, I had never been in the presence of such unprovoked, undeserved hatred from one group of strangers to another. These people were yelling at ME, and I didn't work with animals at all. It was stressful and frightening, and I found myself shaking a little with nerves and frustration at not being able to defend myself.

But Ringling's animal specialists didn't bat an eye. They walked alongside their animals, shouting the occasional "move up" or "tail" above the screaming protesters to keep the elephants together and moving at a good pace. They didn't so much as look in the direction of anyone shouting for their attention. Their focus was entirely on their animals and on getting them safely to the arena. As the walk came to an end, I found myself in awe of their composure in the face of such inhuman behavior...and such horrible accusations. For Ringling's animal specialists, this barrage of hatred and ignorance is their daily routine. And every day they have faced it with their heads held high, because they know, and their employer knows, and everyone who works in the circus knows, that they have nothing to be ashamed of. I gained a huge amount of respect for elephant crew that day, and saw their struggle through new eyes.


Over the next several years, I was privileged to participate in around twenty animal walks and elephant brunches. We encountered more excited faces, and more rage-filled protesters spitting hate. But what really got to me...what really started to bother me...was the doubt.

The first time someone from the crowd approached me was during an elephant brunch. We animal walkers had done our job and were standing in a row by a temporary fence set up to keep people back as the elephants ate. A gentleman looking to be in his late 50s/early 60s leaned over to me and said, "Those elephants are so beautiful! So beautiful! You guys are doing a fantastic job. Thank you for all the work that you do." Like most people he didn't know that I didn't work with the animals. I smiled and thanked him. He continued: "What is with those crazy people? (referring to the protesters) I can't believe they have the nerve to say those things. What idiots!" He chuckled and shook his head. I just smiled and shrugged. Yep, those protesters are pretty unbelievable! What can you do!

Then he leaned in closer, lowered his voice, and said, "So tell me, really...DO they beat the elephants?"

I was shocked, and stood there dumbly as this man continued to look at me earnestly, as though waiting for some kind of confession. I couldn't even begin to think of a response. My thought process was something like this: "Is he serious? Does he BELIEVE those people? What does he expect me to say? Is this a trick? But he just finished complementing us..."

In the end, all I could do was shake my head and say "No, no of course not." He nodded and smiled and backed off, but I could see that he wasn't satisfied or convinced. He wanted an explanation. He wanted proof. And having worked at the circus for less than a year, I couldn't offer either.

He was the first, and there were plenty more to follow. Mothers holding babies, smiling and encouraging their toddlers to wave at the elephants, then turning to me with a worried smile and asking, "Are they well cared-for? They're not...chained, are they?" The young man who'd come to photograph the elephants during a walk, jogging to keep up, wanting to know if this was all the excercise the elephants ever got. The two businesswomen who had waited outside their office to see the elephants go by, and as we hurried past I caught a snatch of their conversation: "...should never have been taken from the wild. Those are wild animals, they need to be free." And I bit my tongue, and bit it again and again, and felt frustrated and helpless.

Although I couldn't talk to protesters (and didn't particularly want to), I could talk to the everyday people who had come to enjoy the animals. But what was the good of that if I didn't know what to say? So I started listening more carefully to the concerns I was hearing. When I heard, "That bullhook looks sharp," I went to a handler and asked to see her bullhook, which she willingly let me hold. And I was able to see for myself that it was neither sharp nor a "torture device", and the next time someone asked me worried questions about the bullhook, I was able to describe the tool in detail and help ease their fears. I had already seen that the elephants were not chained, but between shows, at random times, without warning, I would walk by the elephant barn and look to see what the elephants were up to. After all, they only perform for a maximum of 40 minutes per day, so I was curious to see what they did for the other 23 hours. As a result I got to see the elephants doing all kinds of things: playing with toys, sleeping in the sun, eating, playing in water, rolling in sand, dust bathing, learning new skills, puzzling over enrichment items. The only time I ever saw them tethered was at night, always by only one leg. And so when people had concerns about the elephants being chained, after threeish years of observation, I could confidently say that no, Ringling's elephants are not chained, and describe what I had seen.

This is by no means a part of my job; I chose to do these things myself. I just thought that if only everyone could see what I saw, they'd understand that their fears were unfounded. Through my experiences as just an average person who happened to work for the circus, I thought that I could help alleviate peoples' fears and misconceptions.

But at the end of the day, I am one person, and one person's voice can't be heard over the hateful screams of thousands. And although most people seemed to view the protesters as "crazy", the level of doubt grew and grew.

Last year it was announced that the elephants would be retired to the Center for Elephant Conservation. I think it's fair to say that everyone in the circus was upset. I had a lot of feels myself. But I think many held out hope that something might change during those three years. Perhaps a public outrcry, I don't know. But when the timeline for retirement was moved up by a whole year and a half, well...that hope was crushed. It was time to say goodbye.


But that wasn't and won't be the end of it. Not a week after the elephants were gone, protesters were back out in force dressed in tiger costumes and screaming about tiger abuse (just the tigers of course, never mind those other animals). When Ringling or the CEC posted elephant updates to their timelines, they were immediately bombarded with accusations, hateful words, and vague demands that the animals be "freed". And circuses are still fighting in city halls across America for their right to own and display their animals.

For most people, circus animals have nothing to do with their day to day lives, and so they are content to let government offices decide whether circuses should have animals or not. I understand that apathy. I knew nothing and cared nothing about circus animals when I first arrived here. But since then, I have learned a great deal. And one of the most important things I've learned is that this fight is bigger than the circus, and it WILL at some point effect us all.

My experiences with this circus and the knowledge I've gained here, coupled with the happenings of the past year, are the reason I've decided to speak out more and share what I have learned with others. I do NOT claim to be a know-it-all or any kind of expert. This is not a show of loyalty for my employer; there is a lot that I don't know and will never know about how Feld Entertainment operates, and frankly it's none of my business.

This is me having a moral issue with animal rights tactics. This is me feeling that silence is the worst response. This is me hoping that it's not too late for people to stop believing their worst nightmares and start believing in the reality: that the vast majority of us love and care for our animals.

The animal rights agenda has found that the circus is an easy target for harassment. The current popular way to show that you don't approve of animal abuse is to demonize the circus. But I'm sorry, the easiest things and the most popular things are not always the right things. I am scared and intimidated by the hate and aggression that fuels animal rights. But I'm also afraid of a world where we've all been cowed into submission by hate-filled people who would act like monsters to get their way.

So...that's why I feel the need to speak out and get involved. Thank you for listening.

Comments

( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
donnad
May. 23rd, 2016 02:17 am (UTC)
Thank you.
taz_39
May. 24th, 2016 02:36 am (UTC)
Thank YOU!
BelyndaZ
May. 23rd, 2016 04:56 am (UTC)
Thank you for writing this. A huge percentage of animal rights activists/clicktivist's have no idea what they are really fighting for ... They can't even see they will eventually lose their own pets as this is all part of the animal rights movements agenda.
taz_39
May. 24th, 2016 02:37 am (UTC)
Thank you. I agree. I've spent a great deal of time recently arguing with people online, and sometimes the person I'm arguing with will take a step back and really think about what I've said, and most of the time they'll just start screaming at me haha. But I actually work here, I can't lie about this stuff.
(Anonymous)
May. 23rd, 2016 09:43 am (UTC)
Thank you!
BRAVO! The so-called animal rights groups ARE hate groups. There is no getting around that, but sadly, they are so well funded, and employ the strategy of buying politicians, there is no stopping them. Hopefully, when the DeBlasio investigation is through, there will be a concrete way of dampening their influence.
taz_39
May. 24th, 2016 02:40 am (UTC)
Re: Thank you!
Appreciate it. There are some protesters who are totally nonviolent and simply distribute their flyers, hold signs, and act like human beings. Unfortunately they are in the minority. We animal walkers had to have an extra meeting in California to learn what to do if physically assaulted or if people started attacking the elephants, because that's what really happens there. Just bonkers.

I really hope there's a way to put a halt to at least the violent activity or the facade of "nonprofit" or "charity" that these groups hide behind.
(Anonymous)
May. 23rd, 2016 10:08 am (UTC)
I couldn't of said it better. Thank you for this detailed description of our daily lives in the circus. The animal rights are all exactly as you said.
As a smaller circus we have a been accused of stealing city water, not complying with city ordnance, having hazardous working environment, etc. from these activists in order to shut down our business. Not to mention all the insults our customers have to listen to when entering the circus with their children.
taz_39
May. 24th, 2016 02:53 am (UTC)
Thank you for taking time to read it. I was worried that a "political" rant might be unwelcome, but it seems some folks appreciated it and I'm glad of that.

I have been biting my tongue for too long. The elephants leaving was the catalyst for me. I can't stand that circuses are suddenly something bad and wrong because of people's runaway imaginations. It's just absolutely ridiculous. And now people have lost their jobs over it. Going/Not going to the circus should be a personal choice. People (and their children) should not have to walk through a gauntlet of aggressive angry people just to see a show. I'm honestly just sick of it. I'm afraid of these people but if I stay quiet and the circus loses this fight, I will always regret it. So I'd rather say something.

Hang in there on your show. <3
(Anonymous)
May. 23rd, 2016 06:31 pm (UTC)
The beloved elephants
Thank you so much for writing this, I have been a performer for all of my life and this is been hurting my heart for such a long time. The way they keep talking about how the circus people hurt their animals is not true and I'm glad to see that you saw that. I have no idea the true reason why Feld gave in on the elephants I was sure hoping they would change their mind but they didn't. Wish you a lovely life in hopes of the elephants will have a lovely life also I know they had A good life before they left.
taz_39
May. 24th, 2016 03:01 am (UTC)
Re: The beloved elephants
Appreciate it. Me too. It hurt so much that I couldn't take it any more. If individuals want to avoid circuses because of their personal morals, fine. It's when those people start imposing their beliefs onto others that things go bad, throughout history, again and again.

Thank you and right back at you.
(Anonymous)
May. 23rd, 2016 07:16 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you stood up on your soapbox. Well written and from the heart. And such tactics transcend the AR movement and ultimately threaten our democracy.
taz_39
May. 24th, 2016 03:07 am (UTC)
Thanks, I appreciate that. Wasn't sure how it would go.

I meant what I said and I said what I mean. Activists can make up all the propaganda they like, but they cannot take away what I have seen and experienced myself for the past four years. I'm not a pr-trained company robot reading from a script. I'm not getting paid for saying these things or for the blog or anything other than playing the trombone. And I'm probably putting myself (and maybe others, hopefully not) at risk of some sort of backlash from the animal rights movement. I don't expect this to be fun or easy. But I can't not do it. So thank you for taking time to comment here, because it makes me feel like there are some people behind me.
(Anonymous)
May. 24th, 2016 12:02 am (UTC)
Well said.
taz_39
May. 24th, 2016 03:09 am (UTC)
Appreciate it, thank you.
(Anonymous)
May. 24th, 2016 01:53 pm (UTC)
Elephanas
So well written as always Megan, but so educational for all. Your last paragraph not only pertains to elephants, but so many things today where people are taught that they know best about something they know nothing about. Just what some fanatic wants them to know and believe.

I have read the Pittsburgh proposal to the city council. It is so obvious the writers know little about animals and the public not only believe this stuff but do not realize that what they want to be law applies to their house pets, horse shows, dog and cat shows, etc., if they stop and think about it!

This needs to be printed on every Opinion Page as an editorial in every newspaper across the country!

Thanks,
Carl
taz_39
May. 24th, 2016 03:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Elephanas
I appreciate your kind words. I am not an animal specialist. But I have the privilege of working at a circus where, at almost any time, I may go look at the animals up close and get to know their handlers and caretakers. This is something I'm sure many people wish they could do. I want to share what I see, because it's just that, what I see at work and nothing else. When it comes to my own experiences, I don't have to take anyone else's word for it. As I've said many times, I would not still work here if anything bad were happening to the animals.

Fortunately it sounds like the Pittsburgh proposal will not be passed thanks to the large number of animal specialists who showed up to put the animal rights fearmongers in their place (http://triblive.com/news/adminpage/10522002-74/circus-pittsburgh-council). I wish that would happen everywhere. Sadly there is still a pretty major senate bill against the use of the elephant guide going up in CA (http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160SB1062). Note the ridiculous wording and inclusion of tools that have nothing to do with elephant handling. I don't think I've ever even seen a pitchfork in my four years here haha. This is why people who know nothing about these animals should not be creating legislation involving their care. It's just ridiculous.

Even if people don't want to take my word for these things, that's fine. I just hope people would reconsider what they're hearing from animal rights organizations, and consider coming to see for themselves how circus animals are treated.

Anyway, thanks again haha!

Edited at 2016-05-26 03:07 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous)
May. 25th, 2016 08:49 pm (UTC)
Elephant perspective
Very nice piece. Refreshingly truthful and informative. Thank you!
taz_39
May. 26th, 2016 02:18 am (UTC)
Re: Elephant perspective
Appreciate it, thank you!
somgirl
May. 27th, 2016 01:59 am (UTC)
I have to say, before I started reading your journal....I had a lot of disdain for circuses and the whole animal/elephant thing. I think disgust is a good word for what I felt. However, when I started seeing your picture posts, I was intrigued by what you had to say about working and living with the circus and I started reading. And then I added you to my friends list. And then I began reading every post you wrote and particularly looked forward to your words and pictures of the elephants.

From the bottom of my heart....my opinion has turned around 100%. I fully respect the way you guys loved and protected those animals. When I first heard that the elephants were leaving, I heard a lot of people saying negative things and that it was about time. I found myself educating them (as best I could) from what I'd read in your posts. I truly wish everyone could have read your words because I honestly feel like you really do make a difference. Even if it's just one voice. Don't sell yourself short. You do an amazing job.
taz_39
May. 27th, 2016 03:12 am (UTC)
Wow. Thank you! SO much. For your kind words, and mostly for taking time to hear both sides. I wish everyone would do that!
I'm sorry that you ended up having to defend circuses...that can be a pretty difficult position. But thank you so much for standing up and sticking up. You are awesome in my book!

With all of the anti-circus materials and organizations out there, it's no surprise that you were disgusted with circuses. I can relate to those feels. My only hesitation in taking a job here came when I watched a PETA video about a week before signing on. It made me really worried about what I might encounter. I wondered whether I'd even be able to see the animals, or if they'd be hidden away in secrecy until showtime.

Imagine my surprise when, on my very first day, I was introduced to Asia, a beautiful 43 year old elephant. Not from behind a cage, not chained, and to my horror her handler was several yards away running to catch up to her. She ran up to me (and scared the crap out of me), and started touching me and snuffling me of her own volition. It was amazing.

And then for the next four years, I got to see ALL of the animals at almost all times of day, doing all kinds of things. I got to learn their names, likes and dislikes, and personalities. Pretty soon I was used to getting groped by trunks backstage and making chuffing noises at tigers during intermission.

Still, for the first year or so I always kept it in the back of my mind that if I ever, EVER saw any animals being hurt, I would report it and/or leave. Having moved around a great deal in my life and having quit other jobs over less, I was absolutely prepared to quit if necessary. Fortunately it was not :)

There are several reasons that people don't want animals in circuses. The biggest concern to me are those people who believe that the animals are being abused. That is a very serious and very offensive accusation, and I really dislike that people throw it around so easily. And many of those people will proudly declare that they've never even been to a circus! This has bothered me for a long time. And after being here for this long, and especially after watching elephant crew handle the end of their careers with such dignity and professionalism, I just couldn't stay quiet any longer.

Thank you, really. Your words mean a lot to me. I will continue doing my best to be heard.

If you or anyone you know has questions about Ringling's circus animals I'd be happy to try and answer to the best of my ability. And although you're in Canada(?) if you're ever in the states and want to come see a show or see the train, drop me a line! Thank you <3
(Anonymous)
May. 27th, 2016 04:10 am (UTC)
Thank You
Megan, thank you for posting this. While I never got to participate in an elephant walk I was around the circus backstage most of my life with about a 10-year absence. Anyway, more recently at the Shrine Circus in Los Angeles I befriended the cast and crew and stood by the elephant rides in the building and I experienced the same thing. People lining up for rides and everyone swarming to look at the elephants and then asking me (they assumed I worked there) if the elephants were beaten. As a circus fan member I always encouraged people with children to attend the show and some would look at me with disdain others would take their kids but afterward they'd say "MY KIDS ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT! Thanks for telling me... the elephants are okay, right?" Of course this wasn't everyone but it was a lot and it kept getting worse. This wasn't even the more aggressive bunch. But having spent time with these elephants, all week in LA, maybe on the tour, and hey, even at their Southern California winter quarters I have to say I never saw the elephant hit once.

Anyway thanks for sharing because it really was bothering me but I guess now I don't have to worry about it. But as far as the elephant walks--here in Los Angeles---in 2009 in the early hours before Michael Jackson funeral at Staples, the elephant walk came in and enjoyed 100 % positive media coverage. Angeleno's were thrilled, people thought they were there for the FUNERAL! (kinda appropriate for Wacko-Jacko longtime circus fan) but my point is WHERE WERE THE PROTESTORS? for that moment why did everyone suddenly forget ":OMG-- this is horrible! the elephants are beaten"
The media sucked it up. They loved it. Bizarre circumstance that could only happen in LA, the circus did what they always do and beat PETA to their press release and across the board---everyone was for it.

BTW- the traditional circus fans have always placed high value on live music in the show. I'm just old enough to remember when most small shows went to tape and traditionalist were outraged. It of course makes a world of difference and raises the production value by having live music! That's one of the things I love about going to see Ringling. Wish I had found your blog earlier but better late than never. Great Job on the blog. Great job in the band!!!

Alex Smith
CIRCUS REPORT

taz_39
May. 27th, 2016 08:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Thank You
Thank you for your comments (especially about the band, woohoo!).

It amazes me that people will come up and ask, either in a roundabout way or in a straightforward way, whether the animals are abused. Any parent would be deeply angered and offended if I walked up to them and said, "Hey, so...I was just wondering...you don't beat your child, right? Because I've heard some things." It's an incredibly rude question, especially to a total stranger.

But that's what the circus is facing thanks to animal rights propaganda. So, if the questions are not going to stop, and if they're going to come from people who are really asking out of concern, then heck yes I'm going to try and answer. The materials that prompted such questions in the first place are a lie. I want there to be no question. Not sure if that's a reality or not, but it sure would be nice.

Thanks again <3

( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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