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Cancel the "Circus Spectacular" scheduled for March 4

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            Does NIU want to be on the right side of history?

            Currently, the NIU convocation center plans to host “Circus Spectacular” on March 4th, promising “a cultural kaleidoscope of color”, “an opulent panorama of pageantry” – sounds good so far – as well as “enchanting elephants” and “tantalizing tigers”. Excuse me – what?

            NIU holds certain principles dear – “ethically inspired leadership” is among one of President Baker’s three central pillars, and several offices and programs promote both global engagement and environmental sustainability. Hosting wild animals in a circus context is an affront to these initiatives and the faculty and staff members that sustain them.

            On an ethical and moral level, big cats and elephants are long-lived, intelligent animals and I would join the multitude suggesting that keeping them as performing animals in a circus context is unacceptable from an animal welfare point of view. Close confinement, brutal training techniques based largely on negative reinforcement and grueling travel schedules literally add up to miserable lives. Elephants face electric shocks and being struck by sharp “bullhooks” in order to coerce them to perform tricks on demand. Not just targeted by activists, peer-reviewed animal welfare research points to the conclusion that exotic, wild species such as elephants and big cats suffer considerably in a circus setting. The particular circus in question, “Cardin Entertainment”, has been cited numerous times for failing to meet minimum standards established by the Animal Welfare Act, as documented by PETA. Countless studies in the wild tell us both big cats and elephants are capable of considerable intelligence and emotion. Elephants form tight social bonds and are known to “mourn” dead family members years after their death, often going out of their way to visit their skeletal remains.

            In a growing international trend, several governments are recognizing the incompatibility of performing circus animals with minimum acceptable animal welfare standards. The Dutch government introduced a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, and has been followed by Greece, Bolivia and the United Kingdom. Dozens of US cities have seen fit to introduce their own bans.

            From another point of view, these circus animals come from threatened species. African elephants are listed as vulnerable, and Asian elephants as endangered. Tigers are endangered, and among their several distinct subspecies, three have already been driven into extinction by human activities, and several others, such as the Sumatran tiger, teeter on the brink. In this global context, with human actions pushing threatened species like these out of existence, NIU, as an educational institution, must think of the impression we give to potential attendees of a circus, both young and old. We lead by example, and cannot expect children to respect wild animals on their own terms if they are presented as a vehicle for entertainment like a movie or video game.

            The threats to the earth’s well-being and our own are well-known. Without functioning ecosystems around us (and top predators like tigers and megaherbivores like elephants help maintain this function), life will change for the worse. Ecosystem services we take for granted will dry up – human conflict and disease will increase, nutrient cycles will break down, agriculture will become harder, the atmosphere will change, floods will increase … the list goes on and on. Yet only a small part of the solution lies at the literal “front lines” – such as convincing poor rural farmers in developing countries not to cut another acre or two of forest. Those people are typically trapped in cycles of poverty driven by global economic forces that severely limit choices. Perhaps a much larger battleground lies with the emerging generation of the developed world. A choice lies before us. Are we going to teach our children that the wildlife surrounding us needs to be preserved in its wild context, in functioning ecosystems? That animals that feel pain, suffering and emotion should have certain basic rights respected? Or will our legacy be to let them know that nature’s main function is to provide us with entertainment? That we can rip members of endangered species out of the wild, stack them up in cages and drag them around the country for bite-sized packets of entertainment?

            Please, NIU – don’t be on the wrong side of history.

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