The Circus is Over (If You Want It)

The Chik-Fil-A cows danced, but no one seemed to be having much fun outside the Citizens Arena in Ontario, California. The costumed shills gyrated, goofed and sauntered in that exaggerated “Keep on Truckin’ ” stride almost universally adopted by all mascots and theme park characters.

 Chik-Fil-A, the proud sponsor of Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, had also erected a towering inflatable cow complete with rainbow wig near the ticket booth. I wondered about that wig. Was it all part of the “whackiness” of Chik-Fil-A’s campaign (a cow nervously recommends that people eat chicken instead of beef, ha ha), or an acidly ironic nod to the gay community?

 Aside from a couple flair-ups, one involving a vociferous woman wearing a sweatshirt featuring a bald eagle flying above the word “Alaska” who said, “NO, I DON’T WANT ANY LITERATURE. I DIDN’T COME TO THE CIRCUS TO SEE THIS SHIT,” the afternoon had a strangely muted, solemn and even desperate feeling. Maybe it was my projection, or maybe it’s just because parenthood is hard work, but many of the adults looked lost and tired. While some of the kids, too young to read, pointed at the signs and said, “We’re going to see tigers!” others looked rather solemnly at the images of downed, shocked and bull-hooked elephants.

 I felt sorry for these kids. The little girls in their pink ballerina skirts, magic wands clutched in their hands, made me think of the human longing for transcendence, our lust for the extraordinary. Who wouldn’t, regardless of their age, desire something beyond the bland landscape of business parks and box stores of corporate-sponsored arenas? For these children with their fairy sparkle shoes or super hero t-shirts, seeing a tiger jump through a hoop of fire might mean feeling the distance between fantasy and reality shrink just a bit.

 But kids also respond very powerfully to the truth.

 The most persuasive activist of the day was a child. Danielle was ten, I think. She wore elephant-patterned leggings and carried a red construction paper sign. On one side a circus elephant with a broken spirit languished in a muddy pen. On the reverse an adorable baby elephant, giant ears spread, galloped through the African landscape, trunk held aloft.  “Take some information,” Danielle said gently, but firmly, passing out flyers to families,  “Did you know that they hurt the elephants?” Some kids looked up at her with wonder, others kept their eyes focused on the ground.

 Maybe I still had some leftover optimism after the San Diego screening of “Cowspiracy,” at which the filmmakers said with a kind of quiet confidence, “This (meaning factory farming) is ending.” I feel the same way about animal circuses. Even if “ending” means decades, the Chik-Fil-A cows couldn’t dance fast enough to convince me that anyone at the Citizens Arena truly believed that anything about this kind of outmoded spectacle felt remotely magical to anyone.    

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