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A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Editor’s note: Read Ringling Bros.’ response here.
If you love animals and care about their welfare, the weekend of July 11 marked both a great victory and a dismal defeat in the area of entertainment. It was a victory with the critical and box-office success for the opening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; it was a defeat with the start of a seven-day run at Staples Center of Ringling Bros.’ Legends circus. The juxtaposition of these two events struck me as sadly ironic: as if an old-fashioned racist minstrel show were taking place at the El Capitan Theatre at the same time 12 Years a Slave was being presented with the best picture Academy Award at the Dolby Theatre up the street.
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The latest Apes sequel, like the reboot prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which came out in 2011, presents general themes intended to provoke the audience to think about how we treat animals: that they are sentient beings who experience pain, stress and trauma. Forwarding those ideas in a piece of entertainment that will reach millions all over the world has great impact. As important to me is the proof that a credible film featuring wild animals can be made without using those animals. Film productions have been callous and cavalier in employing wild animals since the business began (see THR.com for the exposé, “Animals Were Harmed”). When bad things happen, productions and studios hide behind the straw man they pay, called the American Humane Association, which is dependent on studio cash. With the proven quality and efficiency of computer-generated creatures, as in the Apes films, this small area of wrongdoing may be coming to an end.
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Still, as much progress as is evident from the Apes’ opening weekend, there was simultaneously an equal amount of regression present at Staples Center. It was like a snapshot of a prior age where people saw animals as unfeeling objects to be used as humans pleased without consequence. “Often, the [circus] animals are provided with limited veterinary care and are denied the ability to express natural behaviors,” says Nicole Paquette, the vice president of wildlife protection at The Humane Society of the United States. “Trainers typically use excessive and abusive training methods to make animals perform physically difficult and confusing tricks. Training tools include bull hooks, whips, sticks and electric prods.” This seems a tame representation of what goes on at Ringling Bros compared to some first person accounts I’ve read.
But you and I both already know circuses are bad for animals. Probably you’ve already heard about the movement to ban the use of animals in circuses in Los Angeles and that the use of bull hooks has been outlawed within the city; and that other cities, like West Hollywood, Pasadena and Santa Ana, have already banned animal acts in circuses. You might have heard that the current governments of Britain and Mexico are pushing through legislation to end the use of wild animals in circuses. And even if you haven’t heard about any of that, it’s obvious that elephants, tigers, lions, apes and the like are supposed to live in large environments and that it can’t be OK for them to be trucked from city to city in small containers. Most significantly, wild animals are not house pets and can’t be forced to do unnatural behaviors without the threat of pain.
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Hell, it’s been featured prominently in the news that Ringling Bros. and Feld Entertainment, the circus’ owner, have recently been accused of endangering acrobats in their shows. Eight people were severely injured during an accident in May and four more in June. If they are putting humans at such risk, how much care can we think they are providing for the animals?
And yet the circus still exists because people give Feld Entertainment their dollars to witness this spectacle of cruelty. What is more disheartening to me is the likelihood that people I would consider friends, or with whom I may have worked — people who would say they are against the mistreatment of animals — ignored what they knew about the circus and bought tickets for Ringling Bros.’ Legends, directly helping to perpetuate that institution of torture. And that fact undoes all the good feeling I had about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Gavin Polone is a film and television producer.
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