Tuesday, February 22, 2011



The circus was coming to Columbia, South Carolina, with all its clowns, trapeze artists, tumblers, stilt walkers, and fire eating acts. Bears, elephants and ferocious lions would soon be riding bicycles, standing on their heads, balancing on balls and jumping through rings of fire. What fun! Lots of Sophia's  friends were planning to go with their families and several had asked her about it.  But Sophia had been talking 
to her Mom and reading about how animals are treated in the circus.  Newspapers, websites,and animal rights organizations have been reporting the many ways animals are suffering at the hands of their circus trainers in the most well known circuses, large and small, all over the country.  Living in inhumane conditions, housed in tiny cages and often in chains, the animals are tortured as a training method. Sophia had  read about them all. Her Mom wouldn't allow her on the websites with graphic videos or pictures--she is only 12--but she read the descriptions.

Sophia and her family don't go to the circus.  They don't want to support a form of entertainment that provides amusement for humans created out of the misery of the animals who perform.  But Sophia wanted to do more than boycott the circus; she wanted to make a bigger difference. She wanted to inform other people about why animal circuses shouldn't continue and why people should attend only circuses that don't involve animal acts--like Cirque Du Soleil.

Sophia decided to get involved, to stand up for what she believes in, to act on her values.  On Sunday she asked the minister if she could speak to the whole Unitarian Universalist congregation during the worship hour about her concerns.  Reverend Neal granted her request with great respect and so Sophia stood before us that Sunday morning and spoke from her heart.  She and her brothers, Nohl and Drew, and several friends, held up their homemade signs as she stepped to the mic and talked to us in words that could be heard to the far reaches of the sanctuary.  Sophia asked us to stand with her in front of the Carolina Coliseum holding our own homemade signs that next weekend and bring awareness to the community about circus cruelty.  She made a special appeal to the children of the congregation.

Tom and I vowed to go to honor Sophia's commitment. I learned volumes in the intervening week. Here's some of it.

Living Conditions The animals used by the circus once roamed free in the wild, living in family units by their natural instincts.  Once they join the circus, they are separated from their families--baby elephants torn from their mothers--and live the rest of their lives isolated, often in chains or ropes, and intensely confined in close quarters where they are forced to eat, sleep, defecate and urinate in the same place, usually on concrete. Diets are not what they would eat naturally; no thought is given to climate control so that they are exposed to extreme heat and cold and they rarely receive decent medical care from veterinarians qualified to treat exotic animals.
 Travel Ringling Bros. brags that its units travel more than 25,000 miles as they tour for 11 months of the year. Their own documents reveal that on average, elephants are chained for more than 26 hours straight and sometimes are continually chained for as many as 60 to 100 hours. Tigers and lions usually live and travel in cages that provide barely enough room for the animals to turn around, often with two big cats crammed into a single cage.


Training Animals don't willingly perform the kinds of unnnatural acts you see in the circus.  They are painful, damaging to their bodies and make no sense to them.  Trainers use brutal techniques to break the animals' spirits and traumatize them into obeying their human trainers.  The fear-induced performances are a result of using sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst, routine beating and other extreme methods. Bull hooks are driven into tender areas of an elephant's body, Electric shock, whips, baseball bats, blowtorches, pitchforks, and pipes are among the tools used to force the animals to cooperate.  Some animals are kept muzzled to subdue them and prevent them from defending themselves. Some are drugged to make them manageble and some have their teeth removed. Some bears have had their paws burned to force them to stand on their hind legs.

Circuses have been known to keep topsoil ready, to camouflage the wounds and the blood on the elephants.  Some actually employ someone to apply a powder to conceal the wounds and stop the bleeding of elephants that have been hooked too hard so that the injuries are not visible during the show.  This is called "spot work."

 The plight of elephants is the saddest, I think.  Elephants are majestic creatures who are intelligent and self-aware.  They are among the most socially-bonded animals on the planet and display a complex array of emotions, including grief and compassion.  They use tools, mourn their dead, and communicate with each other over vast distances through sound.  They are genetically designed to browse, constantly on the move for up to 18 hours out of the day, even when the food is readily available.One of the most common causes of elephant circus deaths is due to osteoporosis, a condition they suffer from simply because they do not have wide spaces to move around in.  For anyone who knows about elephants, seeing these complex, family-centered animals, chained and broken, performing demeaning tricks is simply heartbreaking.

Demostrating On the corner close to the fountain,  we demonstrators respectfully stood, careful not to block their path, holding up our signs as the circus goers entered the Coliseum.  There were enough of us to make an impact.  We had our homemade signs; others had printed signs, brochures, PETA CDs, coloring books and I'm An Ele-Friend stickers. Many of the rest of the folks assembled for three shows, but Tom and I were only able to make the Saturday morning one. A lot of the families passed us by without a glance, but a good many read our signs, took the literature and some even asked for the CD--including the policeman on duty. Nobody was ugly to us.

Sophia's family had awesome signs and great big smiles and her brother Nohl wore a chain in solidarity with the elephants.




What other people are doing Circuses are licensed by the USDA and they make unannounced inspections and investigate complaints of violations of the minimal standards of care of the Animal Welfare Act, leading to fines and even license revocations.  Standards cover housing, handling, transportation, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures. All major circuses have many citations on record--including convictions, with fines and revocations. However listings on their website are only through 2008, so it is hard to judge what improvements have been made.

Several animal rights organizations, PETA, The Fund for Animals, Born Free USA and the Animal Welfare Institute have sued in federal court against circuses, offering as evidence eye witness accounts of former circus employees and undercover films of training sessions showing the cruel methods.  Mostly they have been dismissed because of lack of standing of the plaintiffs. Many of them have ideas posted on their websites of ways you can help.  Check out Steps To Take When the Circus Comes To Town.

Because of concerns about animal mistreatment and public safety, a growing number of communities and even states are considering banning or restricting the use of animals in circuses.  Sacramento, California passed a new ordinance in 2010 which allowed the city officials to inspect and closely monitor the care of circus animals when the Ringling Bros.most recently came to town.

Meanwhile, countries around the world--Israel, Bolivia, Sweden, Costa Rica, Austria, Finland and India--have come forward to ban or severely restrict the use of animals in circuses.

Maybe, with courageous young social activists like our own Sophia Johnson to lead the way, our city will be the next to take action.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


The Battle Against Obesity

Michelle Obama broadened the battle-front when she brought her war against childhood obesity to the largest U. S. Army training center at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. Fort Jackson’s official mission is to provide the Army with trained, disciplined, motivated and physically fit warriors who espouse the Army's core values. Obama told Army personnel at the Fort that our recruits are too obese and “it’s affecting our ability to protect our freedom.” The first lady’s too-fat-to-fight remarks at Fort Jackson reflect her passion for waging war against childhood obesity in America. “Let’s Move” is the battle-cry of her project that targets America’s obese children who rank number one in the world in fattiness. She asked the military officials to support the program to combat America’s obesity epidemic and told them, “You have to get the whole country behind this.” Ms. Obama’s purpose for coming to Fort Jackson was to determine how the military is dealing with the problem and how solutions might be transferred to the general population. 40 percent of the 129,000 recruits each year are overweight, and only one-quarter of would-be recruits between the ages of 18 and 24 could even get into the military, mostly due to their weight.

To cope with the increasingly corpulent corps the Army has installed a “Go for Green” program, featuring things like switching from soft drinks to a hydration station--whatever that is--and posting nutritional information about cafeteria choices. Kim Milano is the wife of the Fort’s commanding officer and a nutritionist who works to improve the soldiers’ diets and exercise programs. Milan said “A lot of this could be transferred to schools across the country,” as she and Obama visited one of the soldiers’ dining facilities. Lt. General. Mark Hertling, who is the Army’s deputy commander for recruits, said the problem begins when the recruits are kids and spend too much time watching television, using computers and eating fast food. He said today’s youth might be smarter, but they don’t engage in enough physical activities, like playing outside. “ It’s a generational thing,” he said, “and it’s going to be hard to change a whole generation.”

A spoofy solution might be for the First Lady to host a kids’ “Biggest Loser” show with General Hertling and Kim Milano featured as trainers for the fat children. It would get great exposure for her pet project of ending children’s and soldiers’ obesity and could contribute to her husband’s efforts to win a second term. General Hertling would be training the fat kids into shape so they won’t be too fat to fight when they grow up (rather than blow up) and will have the ability to fight to protect our freedom from lean and hungry Al-Qaeda and Taliban warriors.

But Americans have a bigger threat from the fast food industry than the Taliban. According to an in depth report on CBS Evening News in November, the fast food killers spent $30 billion dollars last year on advertising which claimed their products are healthy, with mouth watering visuals of giant Big Macs and Whoppers. Two-thirds of Americans, or more than 190 million, are overweight or obese. Obesity-related diseases are a $147 billion dollar medical burden every year and childhood obesity has tripled over the past thirty years. Nutrition experts predict this could be the first generation in America in over 150 years to have a shortened life expectancy.

The US obesity rate is the highest of any country, while nearly 2 billion people in the world are undernourished according to the UK Government Office for Science.

We not only lead the world in consuming fast foods and obesity rates, we also have a bloated military budget. US defense spending surpasses the next closest country by more than eight times. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that the U.S. military budget accounts for 43 percent of the world’s total military spending. US taxpayers pay for weapons supplied to countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel, and South Korea among others. Our defense budget is $720 billion, including the Pentagon base budget, nuclear weapons activities and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Too fat to fight. Bloated bodies—bloated budget. Shape up our soldiers and our children. Reduce the size of the military. “Let’s Move.”