New York City Bans Wild Animals in Circuses: A Vegan America Analysis

Public PolicyMartin Rowe

The decision on June 21st by the New York City Council to end the use of wild animals in circuses within the five boroughs offers, I believe, valuable lessons in thinking about how change happens in society—and perhaps some insights into the Vegan America Project. New York City wasn’t the first major city in the U.S. to ban wild animals (Los Angeles was, in April), and many other places have done it already and on a larger scale. Furthermore, the ban is not effective immediately (there’s a one-year phase-in), wild animals can still be used for entertainment (such as in The Tonight Show‘s longstanding segment), and the circuses could set up camp on Long Island, in Westchester County, and over the Hudson in New Jersey, and still draw a sizable audience. Yet, in the wake of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s closing, the vote (by the substantial margin of 43 to 6) is a further step toward kindness and respect and away from exploitation and cruelty.

I should confess to a personal stake here. When I first arrived in New York City in the early 1990s and became interested in the plight of animals in the human environment, I joined the regular protests outside Ringling. Thirty to forty of us would stand with our placards and hand out literature to people passing by or entering Madison Square Garden, where Ringling set up shop. The police regularly corralled us into certain areas (so we’d avoid advocating on private property) and we’d do our best to model appropriate behavior—some of us well-socialized, others more feral. It’s impossible to know how many audience-members we dissuaded: when you’ve bought your tickets and your kids are excited, you’re heavily invested in avoiding posters depicting  violence and enchainment and block your eyes and ears to the imprecations of demonstrators. But, I find it hard to believe we made no difference at all. And here’s the first lesson.

1. It’s important to show up.
It’s a blindingly obvious point that, if you’re an advocate, you turn up: you protest, you write letters, you call your representative, you lobby, you vote, you sign a petition, you . . . advocate. It’s easy to be cynical about politics; one can be fashionably jaded about how venal or mercenary politicians are and rightfully infuriated about gerrymandered districts and the power of money and lobbyists to shape change. But politics has always been about the application of pressure in favor of a group’s interested; disinterestedness and the public good are usually only recollected in tranquillity. Because while showing up isn’t the only reason why change happens, change isn’t complete until laws are made and enforced, and that means showing up.

Leaving aside any clear link between advocacy and results, I believe it’s right to bear witness. Bearing witness says to those passing by that what is taking place has not gone unnoticed, that some find it objectionable, and that even if you may disagree with those protesting, you should ask yourself on what basis you agree with what is being protested—whether that’s active support or tacit accommodation. None of us likes to be confronted with our own privilege or moral shallowness; we much prefer to think we’ve figured everything out. It pains us (or should pain us) to know that not only have we failed to consider an issue, but that we’re so comfortable with our assumptions and prejudices.

2. Public policy matters.
The reason why Ringling Bros. closed are many and various. People have more contemporary, digital means of being entertained than the old-fashioned circus—including TV documentaries and even 3D representations of wild animals. We’re more aware as a society about the inner and outer lives of wild animals, and of how threatened they are in the natural world, so their representations in the circus as “performers” may feel forced or belittling. Nostalgia, custom, tradition—the words by which supporters of the socially unacceptable often justify their previously unexamined practices—ultimately cannot hold our wallets. I’m sure poor management and the rising costs of transporting animals from one place to another also had an effect.

To that extent, public policy—the passing of legislation to enshrine a set of principles—doesn’t drive change so much as reflect it. Nonetheless, public policy can also galvanize further change. That the two largest cities in the U.S. now are limiting the market for circuses that use wild animals presents a raison d’etre for other cities and municipalities to follow suit, which will put financial pressure on the remaining wild-animal circuses. Social stigmatization will likely follow. Furthermore, activists will turn their attention to other  animal-welfare issues as change occurs.

3. Build relationships and form alliances.
The passion and commitment of activists are only worthwhile if both are turned into action. Action means persuading others who are in positions of power to make that change happen, and that depends on building relationships and forming alliances. In the case in point, Joyce Friedman, John Phillips, Allie Feldman, and others cultivated like-minded councilmembers, such as Rosie Mendez, to sponsor legislation and rallied advocates to support them. The advocates didn’t ask for the moon, they didn’t over-promise, and they offered a sharply defined deliverable. They took their defeats in their stride, they kept positive, and they kept at it. It’s hugely to their credit that this bill was passed.

It’s far from accidental also that many of the supporters of the bill, both activists and legislators, were LGBTQ-identified. It’s possible that “out-groups” are naturally more empathetic or in tune with the marginalized or abused, although I shy away from either essentialism or “victimology.” But the passage of Intro. 1233 provides confirmation that alliances across social justice movements help rather than hinder progressive causes. The animal rights cause hampers itself when its members don’t show up for other causes. Not only is there strength in numbers, but there’s organizational, strategic, and public policy wisdom in genuine solidarity.

4. Victories are essential.
I know very well how impossible the Vegan America Project may seem. Even I consider it absurd, utopian, rife with exceptions, and potentially oxymoronic. Indeed, it may seem an indulgent fantasy and merely an onanistic thinkpiece to those who oppose it—among whom may well be animal advocates and vegans who share the ideal. I have two, apparently contradictory responses to VAP’s impossibility.

As Tobias Leenaert argues in How to Create a Vegan World, his persuasive and pragmatic new book from Lantern Books, while “veganism” itself may feel impossible or a vegan identity may seem undesirable to many, “vegan food” or a “vegan meal” appears much more encompassable. On the long journey to animal rights, he suggests, victories—especially on behalf of those animals whom the vast majority of our fellow citizens aren’t deeply interested in eating—may incrementally but inevitably change the landscape for those animals whose welfare or rights we are currently not interested in protecting. So, while it may be hard for us to imagine now, the circus ban makes a vegan America that fraction more likely.

My other response is that a vision matters. Many of us who stood outside MSG or the Barclays Center on a bitterly cold morning a few years ago to protest Ringling had no idea that change was around the corner. In many cases, change seems impossible until it becomes inevitable, even foreordained. We look back at the struggles at the past and not only does it seem obvious that those injustices would end, but we find it astonishing that people like us held contrary views. We forget about the indifference to, ridicule of, ostracism of, or even physical violence meted out on the activists. We forget that their vision of equality,  shared wealth, or common justice was once considered by the opposition and even well-meaning supporters as too great an ask, too big a lift, or too much too soon.

So, while we activists should not be frightened of pragmatic change, incremental steps, and concrete (if minor) victories to encourage supporters, alter the situation on the ground, and develop more credibility within the halls of power, so we shouldn’t be shy of laying out a vision—even if it seems far-fetched or intimidating to others. After all, leaving wild animals out of circuses seemed that way once.

5. Individual animals matter.
All social justice movements know that it’s important to register victories—and not just to raise money or prove to your backers that you’ve got clout. Celebrations are markers of achievement: they honor the sacrifices of the past and fortify activists for the challenges of the future. Because animal advocates are surrounded by an apparently unrelenting cataclysm of slaughter, abuse, and extinction, we sometimes fail to acknowledge our achievements. It seems indulgent to honor the saving of a few animals from cruelty when so many billions more are suffering.

Honestly, I don’t think we help ourselves in the movement when we ask everyone to concentrate on reducing the suffering of farmed animals above all, since they are by far the greatest number abused. I’m a fairly level-headed individual, but I am moved to tears by the plight of primates in laboratories, animals bored out of their minds in zoos, and magnificent megafauna beaten, shackled, and tortured so they will offer a few minutes of distracted amusement to circus-goers. I don’t see how it helps those like me who are drawn to these individual animals to tell us we’re wasting time, resources, and money on these few when we should be alleviating the suffering of billions of chickens in factory farms.

First, I don’t see why they have to be mutually exclusive; and, secondly, I think the heart has a role to play in changing attitudes and not simply calculating reason. When I think back to my fellow protesters of the 1990s, and even to the ones of a few days ago, I’m struck by how motley a crew we were and are. We weren’t on the same page on every social justice or even animal advocacy issue. Some of us weren’t ready for prime time. And a few—judging by their disruptive and aggressive attitudes—were probably agents provocateurs (or might as well have been). But seeing them yesterday—after all that work and the countless and often thankless hours they spent holding their posters, handing out their leaflets, and calling for change—I found my heart warming  to their idiosyncratic and deeply held passions for these animals who will never know what they tried to do for them. (Or, more particularly, the animals of the future who will never be mistreated in such a way. The fate of those animals currently in circuses may not be as kind.)

As Pascal observed, the heart has its reasons that reason cannot understand: pragmatism, strategy, and the law have their place, but so does care, empathy, and compassion. Incremental victories are essential, but so is a vision to inspire and challenge. Economics and technology can shift societies dramatically, but public policy instantiates social change and catalyzes it also. Coalitions and organizations are essential, but we can’t lose sight of individuals—human or otherwise.