What’s Wrong with Abolishing Circus Animal Shows?

At first glance, H.R. 1759 — the “Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act (TEAPSPA)” — seems like a big victory for animals. TEAPSPA actually seeks to abolish an entire cross-section of animal exploitation. One that is as old as mankind: circus animals. Many parts of the world are already aware that circus animals endure great suffering through their captivity, confinement, never-ending transport, and forced labor. The passage of TEAPSPA would bring the United States in step with modern approaches to the circus. Not your typical piece of welfare legislation pushing larger cages and gentler torture, right? Could ending this age-old institution across the entire United States possibly be a bad thing?

The short answer is no. TEAPSPA, if passed, would be a win for some animals. But questions remain as to whether the bill will be successfully passed. Moreover, although passage of the bill itself would be a potential win for circus animals, it is nonetheless confused, riddled with loopholes, and perpetuates the animal-use paradigm instead of transforming it. In this sense, TEAPSPA is a muddled mess and little better than ‘Meatless Monday’.

Abolitionist Legislation?

Traditional animal welfare legislation is detrimental to the very animals it purports to help. The welfarist doctrine accepts institutionalized animal use and exploitation as long as it is regulated. It is commonly held that welfarism’s crowning jewel, the Animal Welfare Act, protects animals so we don’t have to. In reality, the AWA (like all welfare legislation) is an operating manual for exploiting animals. Welfarist measures unquestionably condemn animals to more exploitation, not less.

Abolitionist legislation on the other hand, does not accept institutionalized animal exploitation. It finds it immoral and seeks to demolish it. Thus, in order to be abolitionist, legislation must unreservedly end animal exploitation. It must be clear that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or for any other purpose, and can leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is the ultimate goal.

Abolitionism, simply put, says that animals are not chattel property. Abolitionist legislation makes it clear that all animal use is wrong, and that the particular form of exploitation focused on by such legislation is just one brick in the wall. A first step, so to speak.

But further consideration of such legislation raises an important question. Can legislation itself ever be abolitionist? For a variety of reasons, I don’t think it can.

Treatment vs. Use

Let’s look at TEAPSPA as an example of abolitionist legislation. On its face, the bill appears to accomplish the threshold requirement of ending (not merely regulating) a specific animal exploitation industry: circus animal use. TEAPSPA even notes in its findings that exotic animals have “intrinsic value.” That is, animals’ lives matter to them regardless of the economic value assigned to them by humans. This is an absolutely essential abolitionist tenet. Sadly, the majority of TEAPSPA’s findings focus on animal treatment. There is little to no mention of animal use as an institution.

TEAPSPA’s bold statement about “intrinsic value” is buried beneath an almost exclusive focus on the conditions of circus animal confinement (as well as various other details that are irrelevant to the animals themselves, like regulatory cost and public safety). While it’s no doubt important to understand the incredible misery endured by animals at the hands of their human exploiters, the larger focus of any abolitionist effort must be on the simple fact that animals have inherent worth, or intrinsic value, as the bill says. If we believe that animals have intrinsic value — that animals matter morally — then we are obligated to stop using them.

Because animals are sentient and desire to continue living (their lives matter to them), we must end our enslavement of them. Sentience is the only factor required to lead us to our conclusion that animal lives have intrinsic value. It’s that basic. Animal treatment matters, but animal use is the fundamental issue. Enslaving well-treated animals still leaves an evil institution in place, and sounds patently absurd. Can any reader imagine a 19th century abolitionist focusing his objection on the mistreatment of human slaves, instead of slavery itself as an institution? This type of approach is just as ridiculous in the context of animal exploitation, provided we agree with the basic premise that it is morally wrong to use and exploit animals for unnecessary purposes. TEAPSPA never reaches this conclusion.

Will the circus industry (assuming animal use is still even economically beneficial for them) respond to TEAPSPA simply by promising to reform the terms of circus animal use? Since virtually the whole of TEAPSPA (the parts that concern animals at least) is concerned with poor animal treatment — small cage size, a grueling travel schedule, unnatural conditions etc. — this seems like the logical path for the industry to take.

Would Congress and the American people be pacified by a regulatory scheme that improves these conditions? Such a scheme might include shorter distances traveled, more natural conditions during animals’ layovers, limits on the number of shows, and more frequent veterinary care. If the problem is mistreatment, as TEAPSPA firmly indicates, why isn’t improved treatment the solution? Average Americans will view the common-sense solution to circus animal abuse as a welfarist middle ground where their entertainment is left intact. And they will wonder why TEAPSPA seeks to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In this regard, TEAPSPA (and the legislative approach generally) is reminiscent of the noxious “humane meat” movement. Almost all welfarist organizations focused on animal agriculture claim to have an end-goal of abolition; yet they’re willing to promote “happy meat” as a step towards that goal. This all takes place in the context of rising global meat and animal byproduct consumption. At no point during these welfarist campaigns does the audience come to understand that all animal use, without exceptions, is what’s problematic. Welfarist campaigns tell them it isn’t.

The TEAPSPA Coalition

In order for TEAPSPA to have any realistic chance of passage, the very politicians who must vote in favor of it (and the constituents they represent) have to feel comfortable with its message. Think of how broad that coalition has to be. It must encompass people across the political spectrum: people with widely divergent beliefs about animals and our relationship with them. As far as I know, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is the only vegan member of Congress. That means virtually all Congressional support for TEAPSPA must come from people who exploit animals every time they eat or get dressed. Animals who suffer every bit as much, if not more, than the circus animals who stand to be saved by TEAPSPA. What kind of message does that send to the general public about animal use and exploitation? Certainly not an abolitionist one.

I’ll tell you the message it sends, because it’s plainly stated in the text of TEAPSPA. It tells the public that exotic animals forced to perform in traveling circuses are mistreated and that it should stop because regulation is too difficult. It also tells the public that exotic and wild animals used by zoos or for other “educational” purposes, lab animals, animals used for sport, circus animals who don’t get shuffled around too much, and all other domesticated animals (including the ones we kill, wear, and eat) are doing just fine. There is no other way to interpret the bill.

Before you object by arguing that TEAPSPA is just trying to tackle one problem at a time, consider that the bill could do so while simultaneously declaring in one simple sentence that all animal use is objectionable, including the uses for which TEAPSPA makes exceptions. Of course, TEAPSPA doesn’t do this, because it must derive support from people who each and every day of their lives demand more animal exploitation. To declare such a bold abolitionist finding, TEAPSPA would have to alienate its entire support base.

Supply vs. Demand

Realizing that TEAPSPA requires support from people who demand the torture and death of animals on a daily basis isn’t about ideological purity. It’s about recognizing that legislative efforts to curb animal mistreatment necessarily have to be watered down in both their message and objective in order to achieve broad appeal. They can never address the immorality of animal exploitation as an institution because they’d never get off the ground.

Attacking the supply side of animal exploitation is an exercise in futility. Addressing our demand for animal exploitation must be the focus. Most animal advocates remark that grassroots education and outreach aimed at demand are too small-scale to achieve a meaningful difference for animals. I find this hard to believe. With food consumption being the overwhelming driver behind human exploitation of animals, it’s an odd claim that the worldwide growth in veganism, and its resulting offset in the demand for animal death, is fruitless. Consider also that large-scale organization and funding for vegan advocacy and education pales in comparison to that of welfarist non-profits, most of whom believe that the path to abolitionism lies in reforming suppliers. There is little doubt in my mind that if all of the funding and energy behind these non-profits magically shifted overnight to community-based vegan advocacy and outreach, animal exploitation would be dealt a crippling blow.

Vegan Education

From a practical standpoint, TEAPSPA will have been a colossal failure if it does not ultimately become law. Like all large animal welfare organizations, Animal Defenders International (ADI) has invested vast amounts of its supporters’ limited resources on its project. Those finite resources, if TEAPSPA goes no further than becoming a proposal, will have been squandered. But waste is not its only problem. Like all legislation, TEAPSPA suffers from being a top-down tactic, rather than horizontal and decentralized.

In other words, legislation is a dictate from above that you shall not do X. There has been no transformation in the population as a whole; no learning experience comes from the legislative process. Thus, in the case of animals used in circuses, the underlying issue of demand would remain unchanged. There are still large portions of the American population who would like to see animals perform in circuses, and would be no more enlightened about animals’ status as chattel property after TEAPSPA than before. Legislation offers no teachable moment. It simply causes resentment in many consumers and a false sense of having done enough for animals in others.

Creative vegan education, on the other hand, is transformative. Because it is decentralized and can be done by anyone, anywhere, it reaches hearts and minds in ways that legislation never can. It forces people to think. Imagine if ADI had used the massive amount of time, effort, and money spent on TEAPSPA to implement a 50-state educational program about the reality of animal use by circuses. A truly grassroots campaign to show both children and adults that animals used in circuses have families and relationships, desires and feelings, and lives they want to continue living. And that the circus destroys all of those things so that humans can have one fun night out on the town. None of that is learned through legislation.

It is ultimately the battle for human hearts and minds that will free animals from the grip of human domination. Governments, as everyone knows, lag behind the will of the people. They only follow, however late, what is absolutely and unabashedly demanded of them. Legislation won’t save animals from their long nightmare, and it’s not something animal advocates should continue sinking their energy into any longer.

I maintain that, while TEAPSPA might have a more significant short-term impact for animals than your run of the mill welfarist measure, its long-term impact on institutionalized animal use and exploitation will be little different than “cage-free” egg campaigns. Post-TEAPSPA, humans will still be using and killing more animals than at any other point in history. Few (if any) minds will have changed with respect to the human-animal relationship. Humans will continue to demand more animal bloodshed.

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