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This spring, a familiar sight at MSU has become no more.
For more than two decades, a local civic group has worked with Breslin Center to bring the Florida-based Royal Hanneford Circus to campus for several days’ worth of performances. These yearly circus visits garnered significant controversy within the campus community and faced years of protests on and off for decades.
Beginning in 2007, some of the fiercest organization against the circus visits began with hundreds of students signing petitions and speaking out against animal circuses.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, has cited the Royal Hanneford Circus 20 times between 1993 and 2005 for violations of the minimal standards for care set forth in the Animal Welfare Act. When performing a literature review of circus USDA inspection reports, one quickly can gather that rather than being an outlier, such frequent violations of the Animal Welfare Act are systemic within animal circuses.
In the 1990s, animal rights groups also obtained undercover video footage of the Royal Hanneford’s elephant trainer Tim Frisco engaging in horrific acts of animal abuse – repeatedly beating elephants with pointed metal rods and striking them with electric prods. Students snapped pictures of Tim Frisco with the circus at MSU and took those images and the video to university administrators. In 2011, students played the audio of the video on massive speakers outside of Breslin before opening night and distributed copies of the video to patrons.
In the video, Tim Frisco can be heard explaining to a trainee how to train and control elephants. Frisco explains, “If you’re too afraid to hurt ‘em, don’t come in the barn. When I say rip his head off, rip his f***ing foot off. It’s very important that you do it. When he starts squirming too f***ing much, both f***ing hands right under that chin! Then when he f**ks around too much, you f***ing sink that hook and give it everything you got, and he’s going to start to scream. Right here in the barn, you can’t do it on the road. I’m not going to touch her in front of a thousand people. She’s going to f***ing do what I want, and that’s just the f***ing way it is.”
Animals in circuses are trained to perform unnatural, painful and confusing stunts through continual beatings, food deprivation and negative reinforcement. These animals often are transported in dangerous cages or containers at high speeds and in all temperatures, at times resulting in injury.
In 2009, pictures of Ringling Brothers’ training of baby elephants were uncovered and published in the Washington Post, showing animals roped and restrained as they were poked, prodded and struck with sharp bullhooks in order to maneuver their bodies into the desired positions. The baby elephants in those pictures had endured exactly what “Baby Val” – an infant elephant with the circus who was exhibited at MSU that same year — had experienced.
Knowing all of this about animal circuses, it is no wonder that many students were overjoyed when they learned earlier this month that the local civil group who had brought the Royal Hanneford Circus to MSU for so many years had folded.
Last week, Lansing State Journal columnist John Schneider focused two of his columns on the “circus’ slow death” at MSU. Although Schneider went to great lengths to avoid or downplay the effects activists had in ending animal circuses at MSU, when one expands the author’s narrow analysis, the effects become clear. Schneider writes that after the 1990s, circus attendance began to markedly decline. Although Schneider fails to make the connection, it is evident that as public scrutiny increased over the treatment of animals in circuses, and as high profile exposés and public revelations on animal suffering continued to dog circuses, many families simply stopped going.
The public tide is turning against antiquated spectacles of animal suffering, such as animal circuses. It is time that the university administration joins compassionate families in their opposition to animal circuses and outright bans such performances from campus. For an administration that touts “boldness by design,” to do anything less would fail to live up to our commitment to social responsibility and strategic advances. We should be moving with and not against the tide of positive social change in relation to our treatment of animals.
Mitch Goldsmith is a State News guest columnist and social relations and policy, women’s and gender studies senior. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.