Last month, Speak initiated a petition to ban wild and exotic animal acts in circuses in the city of Tucson. Its proposal is one of many around the world. Mexico in December banned exotic animals in performances, and Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., have put legislation in place to ban the use of bullhooks, a tool resembling a short spear that is used on sensitive areas to make elephants perform.
When Mexico introduced its ban, the government gave the circuses a few months to stop using the animals in their acts; today hundreds of animals are homeless, unemployed or at risk because they are expensive to care for.
Every year, circuses like Carson and Barnes, Jordan World Circus and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey bring all kinds of animals to town, and every year, Speak protests in front of their tents, bullhorn in tow. “I don’t know if any of these circuses could go anywhere anymore without protests happening around,” said Gary Vella, the chapter coordinator of the organization.
Many of these circuses violate the Animal Welfare Act, Mr. Vella said, and he cited improper veterinary care, inadequate housing and transportation as infractions.
On the Animal Care section of the Ringling Bros. website, the company emphasizes social interactions among elephants and positive relationships with trainers and handlers. Ringling Bros. did not respond to attempts to reach the company for comment.
A circus historian, Dominique Jando, challenges the idea that all circuses mistreat animals. “The fact that some trainers have abused the animals is absolutely certain,” he said, “the same way that pet owners have abused their pets.”
— Dominique Jando
Mr. Jando was the associate artistic director of New York’s Big Apple Circus from 1983 to 2002 and still performs on occasion with the Big Apple Circus. He pointed to Circus Knie, the largest circus of Switzerland, as a model animal circus because it travels with veterinarians and makes sure the animals have spacious stalls and extensive open enclosures to roam. “Circus Knie has been always way ahead of any legislation about the care of the animals,” he said.
Thomas Chipperfield, a world-renowned trainer who has been working with lions and tigers for 13 years, uses a system of repetition and reward: The trainer encourages a certain behavior from the animal, and when the animal shows even the slightest improvement, it receives verbal praise and a treat.
“All I’m doing is asking them to do these tricks and movements on my command,” he said.
Mr. Chipperfield, who comes from a long line of animal trainers that goes back 330 years in Europe, welcomed media and advocacy groups to witness the process. “Normally we are quiet people in comparison with the animal right groups that are very vocal,” he said. “But because traditionally we don’t respond to these claims, people are starting to listen to the groups. We are guilty by association.”
Speak’s ban proposal comes at a time of growing interest in the circus arts in Tucson. Several local businesses have been promoting circus arts through showcases and educational events that include acrobatics, contortion, flying trapeze, fire and more.
Flam Chen, the oldest professional circus arts troupe in the city, produces the All Souls Procession, an annual ritualistic performance inspired by Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. There are no animals in the show, but people often bring their pets.
Companies like Flam Chen, created in 1994, practice what they call New Circus. “It is more theatrical, is about telling a story and using circus as a device,” Nadia Hagen, the troupe’s founder, said. She is ambivalent about animals as performers.
“Humans get to make a choice,” she said. “Humans get to be like, ‘I want to put myself at risk.’ But the animal doesn’t get to choose. I think I don’t need to be entertained that way.” But Ms. Hagen also said she sees the potential of creating art with nature’s creatures.
Pedro Romano, 32, is a fire performer and a photographer at Cirque Roots, the newest circus troupe in Tucson. He said he loves acts that involve domestic animals, especially those involving dogs. But when considering wild animals, he has no doubts.
“I think large mammals like the elephants, that need a whole continent to roam in, definitely shouldn’t be kept in the big top,” he said.
Produced by Yolanda Martinez