A CHILD'S FIRST CIRCUS
Sue Owens Wright
When I was seven years old, my teacher took our entire class to the circus. The circus had come to town, and I remember how excited I was about going to the Ringling Brothers’ Barnum & Bailey Circus for the first time. It was the last time I would ever want to see a circus.
As we arrived in the school bus, the sight of the Big Top sent thrills of anticipation through me. Waiting in the long line to be admitted into the vast red and white-striped tent, I could hear the merry sound of the calliope and cheers from the crowd of spectators. What amazing wonders and feats would we see once we were inside? I could scarcely contain my excitement. I had always heard how marvelous the circus was with its comical clowns, daring trapeze artists, and performing wild animals.
Like my classmates, I had no conception of how these animals were trained to do all the tricks we saw portrayed on the spectacular posters advertising the circus acts. The first thing I distinctly remember about the circus was the smell. When we stepped inside the Big Top, the air was permeated with a singular scent I’ve never forgotten—a blend of popcorn, roasted peanuts, sawdust, and raw fear. Until then, I had been blissfully unaware of the fact that the lions, tigers, and elephants were routinely whipped, poked, and prodded to perform on command. Wild jungle cats that were never meant to live in captivity or do tricks for an audience were forced to leap through flaming hoops, despite the fact that a fear of fire is instinctive.
Indian elephants balanced their enormous weight on narrow pedestals while a trainer jabbed them repeatedly in the sensitive flesh of their neck, armpits, or groin with sharp metal hooks, forcing them to poise precariously on only one foot. I now understand that their loud trumpeting which filled the tent and thrilled the audience were their cries of pain and protest. The terror and misery I saw mirrored in their eyes haunts me still.
Though just a small child, I felt a profound pity and sadness for these unfortunate creatures as I witnessed them being tormented for our “pleasure.” I wondered how those trainers would feel if they were prodded with instruments of torture to perform tricks for an audience. Was this what the circus was all about? I wished I had never come and couldn’t wait until it was time to leave. Even the clowns, with their freakish white faces, bizarre antics, and blasting cannons couldn’t distract my attention from this spectacle of cruelty. Perhaps that's really why there are clowns at circuses. How anyone could ever consider the subjugation and mistreatment of animals to be a form of entertainment was as incomprehensible to me then as it is now.
Mrs. Becker unwittingly taught at least one of her students a very important lesson that day at the circus so many years ago, but it’s probably not the one she thought she was teaching to the youngsters in her class. I learned that wild animals are not meant to perform unnatural feats for our amusement. I learned that wild animals belong in their natural habitat, not in a cage or a circus tent. I learned that circuses are not fun for me or anyone else who cares about the welfare of animals, and certainly not for the helpless, captive creatures that are still being forced to suffer for the amusement of the cruel and the ignorant.
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Labels: Circus of Horrors