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Janet Davis, who teaches at the University of Texas, has written about American circuses and is completing a book on the animal welfare movement, said elephants have "always been a measure of a circus's prosperity." After World War II, it was Ringling's boast that it featured 50. But with increasingly sophisticated nature documentaries, IMAX movies, and whole channels devoted to animals, Americans have become "increasingly uncomfortable" with wild animal performers, Davis said.
The exceptional success of Cirque du Soleil, which has never used animals, seems to suggest that people still love circuses, just not circus animals.
"We don't agree with the way the animals are dressed to do their tricks. We prefer to give jobs to human beings," said Cirque's Pierre Parisien, artistic director of Cirque's Saltimbanco, perhaps speaking for his customers. "They are animals, not performers. They should be in the jungle. We do not agree with the way they are trained, and I'm not sure the place of an elephant or a tiger is to stand in a cage half of its life and perform all around the world. We will never have animals in our shows."
There may come a day when Ringling no longer has animals either. In the Anaheim performance, there are no lions or tigers. Lopez said it's because they don't fit the show's "storyline." But the fact that the storyline is devoid of big cats may itself be a bow to Cirque.
Getting rid of the elephant will take more doing since, Davis said, "they have always been the central iconography of the circus . . . I think they'll get rid of elephants eventually, but it'll take time. I don't think Ringling wants to think they've lost."
And so, tonight, the elephants are led away to be outfitted to perform for tonight's show. The handlers march with them, their arms stiffly holding black bullhooks tight against their black pants. They direct the elephants past the tent where they sleep, past a platform strewn with heavy chains, past a baby elephant rocking back and forth.
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