How the Battle Was Lost
For many years the circus in general, Ringling in particular, along with the Circus Fans Association of America waged a long battle against the various organizations dedicated to seeing that animals, particularly elephants, be removed from circuses. To combat these groups in the efforts to have local laws passed banning or severely regulating how elephants could be used, Ringling lawyers and groups of fans employed a strategy of fighting accusations of abuse by refuting these arguments with expert testimony and heartfelt appeals from the circus fans.
What it all came down to ultimately as far as local law makers were concerned, was having to choose between what must have looked like the high moral ground (represented by the animal rights people) and a group of outsiders trying to protect a business model. In addition to their own “evidence” the animal rights people brought in as many of their local adherents as permitted. To fight this approach the circus needed for the law makers to hear from their own constituents in an outcry against the laws being considered which were intended to curtail the ability of a visiting circus from functioning effectively.
That view, unfortunately, was never presented successfully to local officials by people who could really have influenced them in the most profound way all politicians understand—local voters threatening to kick them out of office if they went against their wishes. This force was never mobilized perhaps because it didn’t really exist, surely not in the numbers PETA and like organizations could muster from the ranks of their local supporters.
I would have said the anti-animal people were much better organized, but in effect the circus’ adherents were not organized at all, at least not in a way that could have delivered the needed numbers from the local jurisdiction which was considering laws and regulations against circuses with animals. What the circus presented were logical, thoughtful, truthful information from experts brought in from anywhere but the political entity considering the new laws. The circus tried to fight misrepresentation of their situation with reason when their weapon should have been a show of force that could vote the local lawmakers out of office.
Letters from fans coming from somewhere other than the lawmakers own jurisdiction, similarly, did little to remind local councilmen and women that their jobs were in jeopardy come the next election.
In 1938 when certain labor unions threatened to put the circus out of business the Circus Fans mounted a Save the Circus campaign manned by volunteer businessmen and lawyers from around the country. This is more or less what the Fans tried to do this time as well, only instead of going national they needed to go local, with locally registered voters, not a cadre of outsiders telling local law makers what to think. For these law makers it was much easier to go with what appeared to be popular sentiment and in so doing save their jobs.
We didn’t know at the time how wrong this strategy was, but a new political reality has opened our eyes. Perhaps a new strategy could be implemented, bringing local influence to bear to repeal those restrictive laws. A long shot, no doubt. But it’s all we’ve got.