Did Loss of Elephants Really Doom the Circus?



Elephants in Big Town

Obscured by other events, “The Circus” recently announced it is going out of business in May.

What circus? To New Yorkers, there is only one — The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

The Barnum referred to P.T. Barnum, the showman who once observed there is a sucker born every minute. You still hear that quote these days.

Were we suckers, taken to the circus as little kids, and then taking our own little kid, or borrowing somebody else’s kid, to pay homage to lost childhood?

The circus said it is shutting down because people stopped going when the circus had to get out of the elephant business.

I suspect it was more complicated. Little kids can find more esoteric stuff in whatever phone or computer they are packing. Movies have stuff that explodes (but no plots.) Kids can kill thousands of people with a flick of the thumb on a video game. Elephants? Echh.

And young boys don’t need to go to the circus to get a glimpse of a bare thigh or bare shoulder of an exotic-looking acrobat. It’s all out there on the web, and more.

In classic Americana lore, the circus was always there for boys who wanted to run away from home. Today, young people don’t run away to join the circus, they…(supply your own punch line.)

Still, I’m thinking something is lost. One of the first signs of spring in New York was always the photos in the papers (really, do check out these vintage photos) or TV footage of elephants striding through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, en route from their special trains — cooped out by Shea Stadium, how appropriate — to the supersized elevators in Madison Square Garden. Better than the first robins.

I knew a young hockey writer who told his readers that the Rangers stunk even worse than the elephants in the basement. Great line. Well, except that the circus was still in Norfolk or Charlotte. Henceforth, he was known as the guy who made up elephant shit.

But what about the elephants?
Another great line. It came from the screeching voice of Ted Turner, mad genius of CNN who created the Goodwill Games, primarily between the U.S. and the soft, vulnerable Soviet Union. In 1986.

Ted went to Moscow to pitch environmental sanity. Birds were dying. Fish were dying. Then, Ted would squawk, “But what about the elephants?” (Imagine, a holy fool with a dollop of compassion and knowledge.)

Well-meaning people said the circus was cruel to elephants and the supply system endangered the great beasts. I say poachers were more of a danger. No poachers in Sarasota, their winter quarters, or the depths of the Garden. But it’s a good point.

Elephants are noble beasts. Some are deities. We have a sweet, wise Ganesh in our home. I was once in a taxi in Mumbai that lingered behind a huge elephant carrying stuff.

And on a day off during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, four soccer writers took a day trip to the Pilanesberg preserve and our guide Witek paused at the edge of a path as a family of elephants passed, watchful eyes right, a few yards in front of us. I have loved elephants even more since then. If shutting down the circus helps that family in that preserve, then closure is a good thing.

On May 21, the circus plays its last show a few miles from my home on Long Island. I can’t imagine going. But I reserve the right to feel nostalgic for another time, when we could enjoy elephants (and bare shoulders) in the center of the big city.

Elephant in Preserve/During World Cup 2010v
The wild has its dangers — like lions. Photo: George Vecsey