The show must go on: Ringling Bros. Circus protested in Jacksonville

By Sarah Williamson |
Photos by Sarah Williamson

Nearly 50 animal rights activists greeted circus-goers the weekend of Jan. 17-21 in protest of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey arrival at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.

Students, local activists and law professors lined the sidewalk silently, allowing their signs to gain people’s attention: photos of elephants locked in moving trailers, bulls being dragged and beaten by “bull hooks” and tigers behind bars.


“No matter how they treat them … these animals are forced performers, bred in captivity and when not performing, [they’re] sitting on the concrete, surrounded by barbed wire all day long,” said Adam Sugalski, 40, who organized the event and has been protesting against the circus for seven years.

According to Sugalski, baby circus elephants are separated immediately from their mothers in contrast to the wild, where they have strong familial bonds and stay together until their death.

Elephants also walk 10 to 30 miles a day in the wild, and he said this is not possible when confined to the circus lifestyle. “[When traveling] they spend 72 hours at a time in a box car, only two, side-by-side,” Sugalski said and then added, “They call this show built to amaze. I call it built to enslave.”

This battle isn’t new, as dozens of organizations across the world have protested the use of wild animals in the Ringling Brothers traveling show. Groups such as PETA and ASPCA argue that animals have rights and that the circus is both abusive and unnatural.

Ringling Bros. has settled many of its disputes with organizations including one last March with PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society. PAWS holds a facility in San Andreas, Calif., that cares for exotic animals that are unable to be returned to the wild after spending their lives performing. After years of criticism from PAWS regarding mistreatment of elephants, Ringling Bros. settled in U.S. District Court on the grounds that they would send retired Asian elephants to their facility and cover financial expenses.

FELD Entertainment, Ringling Bros. producer, tells a different story on their online press-kit. It explains the reality of the diminishing population of Asian elephants due to poaching and the world’s continuous demand for ivory. According to FELD, there are only about 35,000 Asian elephants remaining on the planet, which places them in great danger of extinction. FELD states, “Because of the superior care they receive, elephants in captivity live healthier and safer lives than their counterparts in the wild.”

Ringling Bros. is partnered with many conservation organizations such as World Wildlife Fund, The Sierra Club and the Wildlife Preservation Trust International. Ringling Bros. supported the enactment of the Asian Elephant Conservation Act on Nov. 19, 1997, which allocates funds for research and protection for diminishing elephant populations world-wide.

gargoyle3In spite of protests, the circus remains popular. Circus enthusiast Dani Vourabenstein, 25, arrived as a patron for one reason: tradition. Vourabenstein has been attending the Ringling Bros. show since she was a child.

“It’s been around for so long … you take your kids because your parents took you when you were young,” Vourabenstein said. She was there with friends and anxious to get inside. “If it was super bad, Ringling would stop it. It wouldn’t be going on.”

Elizabeth DeCoux, 55, a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, has been involved in animal rights since 1990. A bull hook was taped to DeCoux’s sign and she explained that this is a weapon that Ringling Bros. uses against the elephants in training.

“This instrument is considered so cruel, it’s been banned in four Florida cities,” DeCoux said. “The things that elephants and tigers do in a circus, they aren’t natural behaviors. [The] only way to get animals to do these types of things is through pain and fear.”

According to FELD Entertainment, “The relationship between the humans and animals that perform with Ringling Bros. is built on mutual respect and trust. Our training methods are based on reward and repetition in the form of food and words of praise.”


A few yards from the protestors, Patrick Rogers, 47, and his son, Patrick Jr., 11, played music outside of the arena, a hat perched at their feet for tips.

“It’s a violent point, if it’s actually what is happening. I think that it is cruelty,” Rogers said.

His son responded in dismay: “If they were doing bad, they’d just shut it down.”

Rogers chuckled slightly, explaining that his son is just a boy and does not understand the world as it is.

“The thing about America is, it’s about money and you can’t just shut it down,” he added, as the protestors remained stationary and families continued to walk past.

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