the circus is coming… and I’m torn

The Ypsilanti Jaycees have arranged to bring a circus to Ypsilanti’s Frog Island Park this Thursday afternoon. And, to be quite honest, I’m torn.

On one hand, I’ve got these romantic notions of how things used to be back in “the olden days,” when folks, near delirious with excitement, would turn out in droves to see the traveling circus when it stopped in their town. I love that idea. I love thinking about the kids back 100 years ago and the thrill they must have felt when they saw the elephants coming into town, and the tightly-clothed trapeze artists being all sexy. In a world before television or video games, when most people never left the state where they were born in, it must have been unimaginably wonderful. And it thrills me that, even though we live in an age where our four year olds are jaded, we have an opportunity to experience even some remote flicker of that.

On the other hand, however, the former animal rights activist in me doesn’t want to give my money to an industry that is notorious for mistreating animals. In their defense, the Kelly Miller Circus, which has been around in some form since the 1930’s, claims to treat their animals very well, despite the incidents in the past pointed out by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

So, I really don’t know whether I’ll be there Thursday or not. I’m trying to weigh both sides in my mind, and it’s difficult. I had to do the same thing a few years ago, when I first thought about taking Clementine to the zoo. In that case, I decided to do it. I figured that the positives of introducing her to animals, especially ones in danger of becoming extinct, outweighed the possibility that the animals might prefer to be elsewhere, enjoying their lives. And, in that case, the decision was made a bit easier due to the fact that zoo we were visiting had a reputation for treating animals well and doing good work.

The circus is an entirely different animal though.

Animals are forced to travel in unbearable heat, and made to perform unnatural acts. It’s undeniable that, on some level, coercion is involved. It’s the nature of the thing… And that’s what I’m struggling with.

And before you start calling me a hypocrite for eating meat, let me wholeheartedly agree with you. I know I am. I know it. Fifteen years ago, when I was a strict vegan, I might have had an ethical leg to stand on, but I really don’t anymore. Every day that I eat meat, I participate in a culture that mistreats animals. In spite of that, however, there’s a line that I won’t cross. I guess we’re all on that continuum somewhere. Even people who eat veal and perform scientific experiments on monkey brains, probably have an ethical line that they won’t cross relative to the treatment of animals. The Kelly Miller Circus, it seems, sits right on my line, and whatever I chose to do, I suspect I’ll regret.

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  1. egpenet
    Posted August 5, 2008 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Grow up.

  2. Brackache
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    Go to the circus as an animal rights watchdog. Buy the cotton candy as a junk food watchdog. Be amused as a low-seratonin watchdog.

  3. Sonic Reducer
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    Please. We give the Rhinos cable tv and healthcare. They never had it so good.

  4. dontgo
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I am surprised of the feedback so far. Just to represent the other side, I say “Don’t go.”

  5. CKL
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I say, Go, but mention to C-tine matter-of-factly that you wonder how the animals feel, or something like that.

    Or even put the question to *her:*

    “Clem, I’m thinking about taking you to the circus, where they have lots of fun things to look at, including animals doing tricks. But I’m not sure the animals like it very much. What do you think?”

    I suppose you could go and, afterward, sit down together and write a polite letter to the circus PTBs, expressing your concern and requesting a response.

    In other words: “Have your steak and eat it.”

  6. publius
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    PeTa has no credibility. They compare eating chickens to the holocaust.

    Go to the circus and have fun!

  7. Posted August 6, 2008 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    While you raise some legitimate concerns about the way circuses treat their animal performers, publius is absolutely right that PETA has no credibility. They’ve made similar holocaust comparisons to drinking beer (just think of all the millions of yeasts I’ve killed).

    I think CKL’s idea of putting the question to her is the best way to go.

  8. K
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    How could a circus be OK? Zoos are pretty marginal, in my opinion, but a circus? On the other hand, at my job there is a “Take one for the team” attitude on animals. Not that we train them and make them have heat exhaustion, but when an animal is inconvenienced by nest inspection, or whatever, it is generally accepted as that particular animal having a bad day so millions of others can get the conservation. There’s always the hope with responsible people who handle animals for public viewing that people will be more concerned with species conservation if they can have some relationship with the animal, versus knowing them only as animated Disney film cast members.

  9. SeaEagle
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    My gosh. These animals are treated like kings. Do you really think that any of these animals would be better off, or happier, if they were in the wild scavenging for food and mates, and having a fraction of the life expectancy?

    Modern circuses keep only a small number of animals, and even a smaller number of non-domesticated species. Each of these animals gets constant care and positive human interaction.

    The days of mile long circus trains with dozens of elephants treated like cattle are long gone. I’m not familiar with the Kelly Miller circus but, assuming they’re like the other circuses touring today, their menagerie will consist of one or two elephants, maybe some birds or zebras, a number of trained domesticated animals (horses and dogs), and a bunch of people (who are generally treated much worse than the animals).

    I and my kids will be there tomorrow. While much of the luster is gone from modern circuses, they’re still a great spectacle and if you watch the crowd leaving, virtually everyone, adults and kids alike, will have a broad smile on their face.

  10. Reclusion
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 9:37 am | Permalink

  11. Paw
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Can we all at least agree that clowns are fucking creepy?

  12. Andy C
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I went to the animals section of the Kelly Miller Circus website. The bottom of the page says “Do you want to know what PETA really stands for?” then links to the Center for Consumer Freedom ( I’m no member of Peta but the CoC is total shit. So now I say you should go! Go and slash the tires and liquid steel the locks of their trucks.

    “On one hand, I’ve got these romantic notions of how things used to be back in “the olden days,””

    The olden days of slavery, no womens rights, witch burning, and all the other bull shit we have suppose to have evolved out of. Real romantic stuff.

  13. brokenmelody
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I agree with CKL.

  14. Dirtgrain
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    “Do you really think that any of these animals would be better off, or happier, if they were in the wild scavenging for food and mates, and having a fraction of the life expectancy?”

    Yes–>”And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… our freedom!”

  15. Dirtgrain
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Stay clear (elephant rampage):

  16. Posted August 6, 2008 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Eating meat in no way assumes that you support the mistreatment of animals. Don’t assume that just because farmers raise animals for slaughter that they mistreat them in any way. It’s that sort of simplistic thinking which makes vegetarians/vegans appear to be a narrow-minded childish lot. I strongly support a person’s right to choose a diet which suits them, but I do not think it necessary to polarize the issue and say that farmers are evil and that eating meat is evil, given that we’ve done it for the past 10 million years of our existence and that there are good ways and bad ways of caring for livestock just like there are good ways and bad ways of raising broccoli and soybeans.

    Being able to choose a diet is strictly a first-world privelage (sp?). Much of the world can only eat what’s available to them, meat or no.

    That being said. Fuck the circus. It’s evil.

  17. Andy C
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Damn that’s hard to watch. “Elephants kill at least one of their handlers a year.” That says it all.

  18. Chillin
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Dude, chill out.

  19. Heidi
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Mark – I understand where you’re coming from. I used to look forward to seeing the animals and felt that going to the circus was a way to support them. Then I learned about their conditions and that much of the training is done through abuse. I’m grateful for the former circus workers and trainers who have spoken out on behalf of the animals. If you look past the happy family/happy animal fairytale marketing circuses try to sell, I think it’s easy to see that confined spaces, extreme temperatures, isolation from like animals, lack of exercise and yes, unnatural acts learned through abuse (perform or suffer) are wrong. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and initiating dialogue.

  20. Posted August 6, 2008 at 5:03 pm | Permalink


    I was doing some Ypsilanti research and found 3 separate adds in the 1869 ‘Ypsilanti Commercial’ for the Circus coming to Ypsilanti. Imagine that, three separate circuses in one year. Each circus had the same admission price of 50cents for adults and 25cents for children under 10. It was also curious to note that each circus professed to be the ‘greatest show of the year.’

    The adds from 1869 show that the Circus included things like bare-back riders, clowns, acrobats and little people on ponies but did not include the exotic animals. Traveling along with the circus but generally a separate operation was the menagerie which was the collection of exotic animals.

    Your problem is solved you can go to the circus but forbid yourself from being entertained by the menagerie.

  21. freeman
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 5:13 pm | Permalink


    If admission was free, then I’d probably go and try to use it as an educational experience by bringing up the subject of animal treatment. Paying for admission would kind of suck though since that payment would support such treatment.

    I’m sort of with dude regarding meat consumption. Something to keep in mind is that not all animals that wind up on someone’s plate are raised in cruel factory farm environments. I personally limit my meat consumption to wild Alaskan salmon and local, free-range stuff from the farmers’ market. Since the latter ain’t cheap and I barely earn more than minimum wage, I just don’t eat much meat anymore.

    While I have much respect for vegetarians and vegans generally, I’m of the opinion that they don’t necessarily hold any sort of dietary moral high ground. When it comes to standard agribusiness sourced produce, for example, it’s farmworkers who often suffer abuse, rather than animals. The way that most produce is grown is also rather ecologically exploitative and destructive. As with meat consumption, there are a number of options, ranging from “good” to “bad”, whether one’s concerns are nutritional, ethical, or ecological.


    I hope you’re right, in reference to the differences between contemporary and older circuses.

    I still don’t agree with your opening paragraph though. It may seem like they’re treated like “kings” to some, if coming from a domesticated human perspective. I just don’t think such a perspective seems very useful for determining what’s in the best interests of non-human species, particularly from a psychological standpoint. While poodles may certainly be better off under the care of humans in a domesticated environment, I don’t think the same applies to wild species, such as zebras or elephants.

  22. Posted August 6, 2008 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    That ahs always been my “beef” with vegans/vegetarians. While choosing not to eat meat simply because you do not like seems perfectly acceptable to me, taking some sort of moral stand on it is rather hypocritical.

    Certainly there is a human cost to growing food through underpaid workers and exploitation but there is also a great ecological price that is paid for ANY type of field agriculture. In the case of Michigan, much of the land that is in use today to grow crops and support human dwellings was once almost entirely swamp land. You could ride a boat from Detroit to Chicago! All of that land had to be drained and cleared and anything denizens, human or not, were forcibly evicted to make room for fields to grow wheat and asparagus. We have completely changed the ecology of the state regardless of our food choices. No one ever seems to want to get on the fence with me on this one, but having lived in farm country, the reality of our impact due to our mere existence is much more clear to me.

    Also, there is the idea that somehow cute, mammalian species are somehow sacred, reflecting, once again, human ego and self-centeredness. Look how many people freak about the fucking polar bears but could care less about the thousands of insect and fish species that go extinct every single year.

    Still, fuck the circus.

  23. Thoreau
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with”; and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle. Some things are really necessaries of life in some circles, the most helpless and diseased, which in others are luxuries merely, and in others still are entirely unknown.

  24. Posted August 6, 2008 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    That’s completely stupid. You have assumed that the dietary requirements of a cow, a goat, a chicken and a human are all the same.

    Meat is not a necessity for human survival (assuming you can grow enough other type of food to make up for it), but that argument is lacking.

    Still, the circus is dumb.

  25. mark
    Posted August 6, 2008 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all for your thoughts on this. I’ve made my decision. I’m going. I’m not paying. And I’m eating every animal I encounter.

    And “vegetable-made bones” is an absolutely beautiful turn of phrase.

  26. Posted August 6, 2008 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    there is also a great ecological price that is paid for ANY type of field agriculture.

    As someone who was (frequently pesco-)vegetarian for about 9 years, but now eats meat selectively, I still find this to be my least favorite counter to vegetarian arguments.

    “Sure, meat-eating is bad, but just think about all the damage that crops do!” completely fails to consider that very little of the meat in consumption today is pastured, with “grain-fed” used as a mark of quality in common marketing, meaning that all of the damage from raising crops is incurred…and then all of the damage for raising animals is incurred on top of it. The typical meat-eater raising this complaint (my brother always used to like talking about rabbits decapitated by combines) never really thinks about the fact that their hamburger includes an order of magnitude more grain-induced-badness than the vegetarian’s meal.

    I grew up in farm country too, and am quite familiar with the tens of acres of corn and soy raised every year to be ground up into silage to feed a very small number of cattle. I’ll wholeheartedly agree with you, dude, on the environmental impacts of field crop agriculture, but we differ at the point when you try to pin it on vegetarians.

  27. publius
    Posted August 7, 2008 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    You know what a factory farm is? A big farm. Calling it a factory makes it sound scary. But without large farms, many more people in the world would go hungry. Not everyone is rich enough to eat organic, locally grown products.

  28. Posted August 7, 2008 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Factory farms are just that: factory style agriculture. Due to their size they cause serious impact to a local community and the local environment. Plus they get to flout local tax laws while giving nothing back to the community besides serious environmental problems. There’s one down the road form some property I own. Trust me, they suck. When people stop thinking that beef is like oil, the world will be a better place.

  29. Posted August 7, 2008 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Yes, publius, I too wish the solution to hunger and poverty were as simple as us stopping being such damn stuck-up hippies.

    Unfortunately, the world has no shortage of food – unfortunate because that would be an easy problem to address. The issues are much more complicated, and much harder to reach consensus on, like the World Bank and IMF forcing local farmers (who did eat local, organic food up until that point) to give up their indigenous farming practices in favor of growing monoculture commodities which are ill-suited to local conditions, forcing the farmers to purchase fertilizer and chemicals (from the first world, of course), but frequently having trouble getting enough water to raise their crops, because, oops, the reason they’re in hock is because of that dam the IMF built up-stream to generate electricity which the farmer will probably never see any of, and with the yield the farmer does get fetching a far lower price at market than the international advisors had predicted, based on price subsidies and other (primarily first-world) trade barriers, and the fact that everybody else in the world is being pushed to grow the same commodities, willfully setting aside such niceties as “comparative advantage” in favor of selling as much of Monsanto’s latest seed as possible.

    No, you’re right – it’s definitely much more pleasant to just think “those damn hippies are the cause of hunger”.

  30. Robert
    Posted August 7, 2008 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I completely lost interest in the circus when I found out they didn’t include the human freak shows anymore.

  31. Paw
    Posted August 7, 2008 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Oh, there are still human freaks, my friend. Just get their early and you’ll see them unpacking the crates and putting up the big top.

  32. not one of the cool kids
    Posted August 7, 2008 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I think the Circus industry fills a gap in our country for many talented people who want to work doing what they love. Circus’ today are theatre, dance, acrobatics, and a few animals. This country is so lacking in audience members and Careers for/in theatre and dance, that the Circus is a way for many children to see their one and only live performance of their childhoods, as well as, giving jobs to many talented people. I say go, point out to your daughter all the talent that the performers have!

    As a kid and as an adult, whenever I have been to the circus, by the middle of the event, I feel sorry for the animals. But I have to believe that good HUMANS are taking care of those animals. Most likely they take better care of their animals then the corporations that run factory farms.

    after visiting a factory hog farm 20 years ago for his work (he was in agricultural sales) my father never ate pork again, and neither have I. Row after row of
    pigs in tiny stalls with crap up to their bellies. A year later he toured a veal factory farm, a told us about how the young cow are locked in tiny boxes all day and how they scream and cry and how he could hear them crying from 100’s of yards away. Needless to say, veal has never touched my lips. Now, every time I pass a farm with those tiny veal barns in their yard, I honk and flip them off.

  33. ytown
    Posted August 7, 2008 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Go to the circus and have fun with your kids. Let them experience as many of lifes pleasures as possible. When they are older they can choose to support the circus if they want. Think of your admission as a way to ssupport the animals financially. Your admission ensures their treated well. Have fun and relax. I abhore the mistreatment of animals, however I love my kids more! I am going to the circus with my family and will use it as a teaching moment.

  34. IdeaOfOrder
    Posted August 7, 2008 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Not to endgender a flame war on the vegan/vegetarian issue, but I always like to point out a few fallacies people tend to make with respect to veg*ns:
    * I’m a vegan and I generally hate PETA. Many of my friends who are vegan also dislike them. It’s too infrequent that we attempt to distance ourselves with what, I agree, is generally misguided, single-minded, hypocrisy (see their sweatshop filled Guide to Compassionate Clothing).
    * Eating meat *should* be more expensive than eating plants; luckily, my middle class tax dollars help subsidize your minimum wage meat. Agribusiness has a great deal of lobbying clout and wouldn’t be able to function without government help. While I don’t have the numbers or study handy, my understanding is that meat costs the consumer roughly a third of what it should/would w/o govt subsidies.
    * While I do think choosing not to eat meat _can_ (and usually is) be a moral issue, I don’t see it as vantage to judge from. It would be pretty difficult to live a totally blameless existence. HOWEVER (this is a big however), that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make _any_ moral decisions. This appears to be what some folks are advocating: I frequently hear things like “well, what about the kids in sweatshops in China?” as if not taking up *every* cause invalidates *any* cause. Again, this is about feeling judged. Many meat eaters are judgmental, just as are many veg*ns.

  35. publius
    Posted August 8, 2008 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Hey Murph,
    If the filthy sandal fits . . .

  36. Posted August 8, 2008 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Ytown has reproduced.

  37. Ol' E Cross
    Posted August 9, 2008 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m so pissed I missed the circus. Fucking nature, luring me away from my true love … massive heavily adorned animals dancing like Christmas trees clear cut at the trunk.

    I traveled north hundreds of miles and didn’t even see a blasted puny black bear, let alone one wearing a tutu, and while I’m gone there’s fangs and teeth doe-see-doeing in my backyard? Dammit.

  38. Posted August 10, 2008 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Hey Mark,
    Did you go? What did you think, honestly? I am the tiger trainer. How did the animals look? How would you rate the care they received? I am asking because you seemed to be open minded and undecided. And I figure if you were swayed one way or the other I would like to know what did it.


  39. mark
    Posted August 10, 2008 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Casey, we did go. We went to the early show. Unfortunately, we got there about 10 minutes late, and we missed the tigers. We did, however, see the elephants and horses. And, while my heart went out to them, I didn’t have any reason to think that they were being mistreated in any way. Generally speaking, I was pleased to find that the modern circus was more about human exploitation than animal exploitation… And, by that, I don’t mean that humans were necessarily being “exploited” – just that more of the acts revolved around people (from Mexico, Peru, Kenya, etc) and their talents than animals. I was pleasantly surprised by that… With all of that said, however, I was still depressed to see the animals that were there. I couldn’t help but think about the long hours they have to travel in hot, cramped boxes. So, I guess you could say that I had mixed feelings about the experience. All in all, however, I’m glad that we went.

  40. Robert
    Posted August 10, 2008 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I guess they moved most of the circus side shows to network television.

  41. Posted August 10, 2008 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Hey Mark,
    This may or may not matter to you. This show in particular moves 50 miles a day on average. Some days we drive 80, others (from ypsi to redford for example) we drive 10. The trailers which we haul animals in now days are made for just that, hauling animals. All three of our animal trucks are set up with heating when needed. Studies and experience have taught us air conditioning causes respiratory problems in animals (you probably noticed though 60& of the trailers are open vents) I am no way arguing that all circuses take care of their animals correctly, I am just hoping we can be judged individually rather then under one big blanket. I very much appreciate the honest opinion. My business has a very bad habit of thinking they know what the “public” thinks. The first 100 years of circus in America were pretty much unregulated and under the radar, thank goodness it is regulated now. I was not born into this, I chose to train animals and chased that because I dig animals, just as my wife has done (she was the girl with the Eskimo dogs) Many people don’t realize the difference between Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. I believe in Animal Welfare.

  42. little richard
    Posted August 10, 2008 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I saw the 2nd show of the circus, and we loved nearly every part of it, except the very first act, which was the tiger act. They looked very sad, and several seemed somewhat uncooperative. There was a great deal of that loud “snap” sound that resembled a gun shot but was i think made by Casey’s whip. My children were also saddened by the spectacle of the tigers being put thru their paces, made to do such things as jump thru a ring of fire.

    I know tigers breed easily in captivity, and are terribly endangered in the wild, everywhere. Probably these three creatures are captive-born, and thus not directly involved in the threatened extinction of wild tigers. Still, they are such graceful and beautiful animals – to see them as playthings was very sad. This was also the conclusion of the family sitting next to us.

    The acrobatics, juggling, — all that was amazing and joyful to see. Yet the image of the tigers being conquered and made to do the will of their “master” sticks with us. I doubt my children will want to attend a circus again — that’s what one of them said this morning, a couple days after seeing the Kelly Miller circus.

  43. Posted August 10, 2008 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Mark, you went to the circus and you are “glad we went”, I guess what I said wasn’t far off:
    “Go to the circus and have fun with your kids. Let them experience as many of lifes pleasures as possible. When they are older they can choose to support the circus if they want. Think of your admission as a way to ssupport the animals financially. Your admission ensures their treated well. Have fun and relax. I abhore the mistreatment of animals, however I love my kids more! I am going to the circus with my family and will use it as a teaching moment.”

  44. Ol' E Cross
    Posted August 10, 2008 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    I abhore [sic] the mistreatment of animals, however I love my kids more!

    So, you loving your kids makes you give them things you abhor?

    Personally, I don’t have an issue with the circus, but seriously? Your idea of parenting is giving the kids whatever will amuse them damn the morality?

  45. Posted August 11, 2008 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    You guys are desperate. Scouring my posts for any little thing to criticize. I gotta respect your determination though. Although it’s a little creepy.

  46. Dirtgrain
    Posted August 11, 2008 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    “You guys are desperate. Scouring my posts for any little thing to criticize. I gotta respect your determination though. Although it’s a little creepy.”

    Good God, man. You’ve managed to get five of Freud’s defense mechanisms in there: displacement, projection, reaction formation, fantasy and denial. Freud called this the quintuple whammy. Tell us how you really feel.

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