Circus Reform Yes!


Like many grassroots groups, Circus Reform Yes! (CRY!) started with a dream: a dream we had to end the misery of wild animals incarcerated in the circus. Initially we held demonstrations outside of the Target Center when the circus came to town, bearing witness to the animals’ suffering. But we knew more could be done. As a city with vision, we knew that Minneapolis could become the twenty-ninth American city to ban wild animal circuses. In Europe, hundreds of cities (one hundred and sixty in England alone) and the entire country of Austria have already banned wild animal circuses.

Opinion: Circus Reform Yes!

We decided to set up a table and start talking to our fellow Minneapolitans. As we tabled outside of Minneapolis food coops, thousands of people signed postcards to City Council members, urging them to prohibit wild animal circuses. We next took our message to Minneapolis events such as the Gay Pride Festival, the Children’s Expo and the Pet Expo, and the Minnesota Educators Conference. Every minute we’ve worked (which now totals thousands of hours) is totally volunteer, without exception. Why do we keep going?

Elephants, highly intelligent, sensitive beings with strong family bonds, walk over twenty miles a day on their home range. In circuses they are chained up to twenty hours a day. Elephants urinate, defecate and sleep in chains. As the famous civil rights activist Dick Gregory put it so eloquently, “The chains that hold the elephants captive are the chains that held my ancestors.” Each CRY! volunteer remains committed to breaking those chains, and that’s where our inspiration comes from.

How does a one hundred and eighty pound man get a two thousand pound elephant to perform painful, unnatural tricks? With a bullhook, among other implements. Bullhooks are long sticks with sharp metal hooks attached to the end. The elephants are jabbed and prodded in their most sensitive areas, around the ears and mouth. Bullhooks are sharp enough to make them remember, as elephants do, what will happen if they don’t perform the trick right—tricks that often leave them arthritic or crippled for life.

As more people learned about the reality of life for circus animals, our ranks began to grow. We raised money, started a website (, printed t-shirts, and were able to reach even more people. How did members of the Minneapolis City Council respond when they began receiving hundreds, then thousands of signed postcards, letters, emails and phone calls- all from constituents who want animal circuses to be replaced with animal-free circuses? Some on the Council immediately embraced the issue, some warmed to it, and remarkably, some remain unmoved by the cruelty done to the animals and the concern of their constituents.

If you come hours before the wild animal circus at the Target Center, you’ll see the circus trailer trucks hauling in the elephants. The arena doors open, bringing the elephant truck inside. The doors slam shut. The process is reversed after the shows are over. These circus animals on tour do not see the light of day.

Lions and tigers don’t fare any better. These magnificent animals are kept in cages so small that they can hardly turn around. Imagine what fear has to be drilled into a tiger to make that tiger jump through a hoop of fire. These large cats have a deep fear of fire that protects them in the wild. When a hoop of fire collapsed on a tiger in Coquitlam, British Columbia, in front of schoolchildren, that municipality banned wild animal circuses in a hurry.

People from all over the Twin Cities we met while tabling stopped to tell us how wild animal circuses had impacted them as a child. Some saw the fear in a tiger’s eyes when the whips came out. Others remembered dull eyed, depressed elephants neurotically swaying back and forth. Others, as children, saw nothing wrong, but when they grew up and learned how the animals lived and were trained, their opinion on wild animal circuses changed. I can say with certainty that no child would go a circus if they knew what the animals endured out of sight.

Confinement in trucks, chains and cages is an enslavement that dishonors our children. Dr. Melvin E. Levine, professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina, says that circuses teach children to disregard “the feelings, the needs, and the rights of other living individuals.” We want our children to follow their natural bent away from violence. As citizens of Minneapolis, we are all their teachers.

Is there a public safety risk? Wild animals in circuses endure relentless travel in their own waste, in constant confinement. For naturally free roaming animals, the constant moving in confinement is enough to cause them to go out of control. Wild animals do not cope well with isolation from their social groups and with repeated changes in their territories.

Peggy Larson, D.V.M., who worked with large animals as a USDA inspector said it well, “Circus animals have gone berserk and killed people. Sears, Roebuck and Co. no longer sponsors circuses because of the potential danger to children from the animals, and because of the animal abuse inherent in circuses.” All the injuries and deaths that have occurred in circuses would not have occurred if wild animals were not exhibited for entertainment.

Where will the wild animals go when circuses go the way of the freak show? Excellent sanctuaries such as the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and the Elephant Sanctuary already exist. With patience and kindness caregivers help the animals heal, physically and psychologically.

Drugs and crime are two of the many social problems our city faces. We can and should chip away at these more complex issues. But wild animal circuses could be eliminated in one fell swoop. A City Council “yes” vote on the Animal Protection Amendment would do it. Please urge your council member to join that YES. Open the way for the many wonderful animal-free circuses to come here. It’s time, and it’s in your hands.

Christine Coughlin is the executive director of Circus Reform Yes!