P.T. Barnum’s Hometown Bans Wild Animals in Circuses

The city of Bridgeport, Connecticut—once home to “The Greatest Showman”, P.T. Barnum—has officially banned the use of wild animals in circuses.

In a unanimous vote, the City Council voted on Monday November 5 to ban wild and exotic animal circus acts. This makes Bridgeport the second city after Stamford to enact such a ban. Arguably Bridgeport’s move is more noteworthy, precisely because the city was once home to P.T. Barnum, the man most recently made famous in the film “The Greatest Showman“.

Barnum, who was once also mayor of Bridgeport, was the first in America to make it big with a travelling circus. He enraptured audiences with exotic animals they had never seen before, and then returned home each winter to keep his animals in the town.

But we now have a better awareness of what an “animal circus” actually means for the animals: cramped inhumane conditions and abuse in order to make them perform tricks. It was never right, and Bridgeport this month has said enough is enough.

“As the home of PT Barnum, we’ve taken a symbolic step that proclaims we’ve learned from the past and emphatically decided to move forward in a more progressive and compassionate way,” Councilmember Kyle Langan said in an Animal Defenders International (ADI) press release. “Thank you to ADI and all the advocates who supported us along the way.”

ADI, which has long campaigned for this move, also praised the decision, with Jan Creamer, President of ADI, saying, “We are thrilled that Bridgeport has chosen to move with the times and ban the use of wild animals in circuses. We hope other states will follow its lead to protect animals and the public across the United States.”

In a surprising way, this ban also honors a lesser-known aspect of Barnum’s circus’ legacy.

Just as Barnum’s relationship with the people who appeared in his circus is a complex one—did he empower his so-called “oddities” or exploit them, or perhaps both?—he is often maligned as the first person to introduce wild animals into circuses. He certainly did exploit those animals.

As historical accounts note, the bears, horses, hippopotamuses, elephants and even beluga whales that appeared in his museum, and some later in his traveling circus, were high-profile main attractions for Victorian audiences. They animals didn’t receive anywhere near the kind of care we now know they need to live their lives to the fullest. Indeed, images of Jumbo the elephant, detusked and locked into a crate barely bigger than he was, will no doubt chill modern eyes.

However, there were some positives that by no means obscure the negatives but at least meant some good did come out of this. Barnum himself did care about the animals in his circus (at least as far as his sense of their agency allowed) and was responsive to the animals needs. He is known  for saying “I love animals too well to harm them,” and it appears that he did attempt to make the animals lives as tolerable as possible while at the same time using them in his circus. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is worth remembering that he had no meaningful legal responsibility to those animals, and there were no significant animal welfare standards to which he had to adhere. Small comfort, perhaps, but still worth noting.

As a side note, Barnum was also regarded as having extensive knowledge of these animals at a time when understanding about exotic creatures like snakes and elephants was low. Barnum, with his typical flair for the dramatic, was arguably able to increase general awareness about the animals themselves. You cannot defend what you cannot talk about, so in a meaningful way Barnum gave people who did care about animal rights a way into the conversation. And they took it.

Of greater importance than all this, perhaps, was his thorny friendship with Henry Bergh, an early animal rights activist and founder of the ASPCA who policed Barnum’s shows at every given opportunity, both figuratively and later, once empowered by officials, actively. Accounts say that Bergh, fearing for Barnum’s performing stallion known as Salamander and the fire-tricks he forced the horse to perform, sent police officers to one performance. Barnum promptly jumped through the fire himself and had his other performers do the same to demonstrate that the fire was in fact a trick. However, this early animal rights discourse created a public consciousness surrounding the animal performers. Barnum can’t have the credit for this, of course, but it was arguably within Barnum’s power as a media sensation to attempt to crush Bergh’s public profile and the animal rights movement, but he did not do so. Barnum even left money in his will for a statue to be erected in Bergh’s honor, one that still stands today.

Some have argued that, were Barnum alive today, he would have been among the first to read the winds of change and public opinion and say that animals must be retired from circus performance. Whether that is true or not, it is undeniable that Bridgeport’s decision to phase out wild and exotic animals from its circuses is an immensely important step in a national movement toward banning this form of animal exploitation.

Take Action!

It is past time that the cruel exploitation of animals for entertainment came to an end. Sign the Care2 petition today calling on Congress to ban the use of animals in circuses!

If you want to make a difference on an issue you find deeply troubling, you too can create a Care2 petition, and use this handy guide to get started. You’ll find Care2’s vibrant community of activists ready to step up and help you.

 

Photo credit: Getty Images.

105 comments

joan silaco
joan silaco19 days ago

thank you

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heather g
heather g19 days ago

Seems like we needed a new petition.... I signed in 2014,

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Therese Kutscheid

Yes!!! That is a great news.
Thanks for that article.

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Christine S

thanks

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Paula A
Paula A21 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara21 days ago

good for them

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara21 days ago

th

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Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan Hill21 days ago

great

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Caitlin L
Caitlin L22 days ago

Good news

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Irene S
Irene S23 days ago

Great!

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