Our Power as Consumers

baby-elephantYou may have heard recently that Ringling Brothers is phasing out elephant performers.

I don’t usually write about “single issues” because I like to go after the fundamentals – compassion, moral exclusion, and so on. But the news that Ringling Bros. will free 13 Asiatic elephants is exactly why we take action: to save innocents from misery.

Going to the circus seems innocent, and for the attendees it is. I’m not ascribing malice to them. People like to watch elephants perform and marvel at them, at their beauty and skill. It’s the same for Seaworld, aquariums, or zoos. People don’t go to those places because they dislike animals or want them to suffer. They go there to celebrate them.

But that’s not the experience of the animals forced to perform there. Apologies for the long quote:

Ringling elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity. Barack, a calf born on the eve of the president’s inauguration, had to leave the tour in February for emergency treatment of herpes—the second time in a year. Since Kenny’s death, 3 more of the 23 baby elephants born in Ringling’s vaunted breeding program have died, all under disturbing circumstances that weren’t fully revealed to the public.
~ Mother Jones

I know people who go to animal circuses, saying they don't want to deprive their children of that experience. That's exactly the reason I don't go to them. I won't deprive a child of his mother, or a mother of her child, just because they're not in the same species as me. I admire the desire to see animals, and I admire the desire to kindle a love for animals in your children. But maybe watch a nature documentary instead, or even better, consider visiting an animal sanctuary. Our wonder is misspent if it involves capturing and abusing the object of our wonderment.

In the same way, there's no malice in people who eat animal products. When they hear a vegan protest, I'm sure they're thinking, “Dude, I’m just eating.” But in this interconnected world, we’re so rarely just doing anything. Our purchases matter, including food purchases and tickets to the circus. With our purchases, individual Americans directly affect the lives of thousands of innocents. Collectively, we as a species end some 50 billion innocent lives every year with our purchases. That’s just farmed animals, and doesn’t include aquatic animals whose deaths (and lives) are only measured in tons. In our increasingly worrisome political climate, purchasing choice is one of the few places left where we have direct power.

Consumers exercised their power and Ringling Bros. had to listen. It’s a good start, but there are still animals in Ringling Bros. It’s not retiring its other animal performers, including lions, tigers, and camels. I think in some ways it’s easier for humans to empathize with elephants because they’re very like us. Like us, they have an intense love for family. Perhaps even more than us; after only a few hours apart foraging for food, when elephant families reunite it’s always a joyous occasion with much leaping and celebrating. They understand death and, like gorillas and humans, have mourning rituals. And, like us, when their family members are killed they sometimes seek revenge.

How strange it seems, to me, that we encourage our children to watch Dumbo and Bambi, but then tell them that the circus and hunting are ok. It shows tremendous confusion as to what we should value, how much we should care, and to what ends we should put our power. And it seems very confused that a company has freed one species of captive but sees no problem with keeping others. If we can only be kind to those we can empathize with, that’s a serious problem.

Animal rights activists disagree over whether single issues, like elephants in circuses, are a good way to spend our efforts. Some worry that it allows people to feel good about “happy exploitation” and fail to seek complete abolition for our fellow beings. The worry is that people will see that elephants are free and declare victory, leaving the camels, horses, lions, tigers, and others to suffer.

I think there’s a place for single issues as long as we don’t lose sight of the end goal: complete abolition. There are people who will get on board for a single issue campaign – orcas in Seaworld, whale slaughter, fur, foie gras – when they might not be ready to try out veganism yet. I am an activist who does think bigger cages is progress, but that isn’t a stopping point. I think compassion is a gateway drug to more compassion.

Ringling Brothers’ decision to send its captive performers to a sanctuary in Florida to live out their years is a perfect example of our power as consumers. The fact that Ringling kept captive elephants at all is also a symbol of our power. We, as ticket buyers, created that. What will you do with such power?