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.


  1. I am so proud of you, Sophia! You are setting a wonderful example for us adults.

    Rev. Neal Jones

  2. I've been to many demonstrations to protest injustices in our society.

    This was one of the best ever because it was so well organized by one of my favorite friends, Ms. Sophia Johnson.

    Thanks, Sophia.

  3. Go Sophia and family! You are such a shining example! We sure do miss you and could use you out here in Texas! Love, Leela, Brian, Cali and Connor

  4. I do not know who Sophia is, but I am so proud and thankful to her and all of you who participated in the peaceful demonstration to make others aware. There are other ways to appreciate animals than dressing them up in tutus and making them act like humans. The best way is to fight for their rights to exist in natural habitats.

    Your church is also amazing to give voice to this wonderful cause.


  5. Thanks Judy, I really appreciate all the research you did after coming to the protest and then sharing it with everybody that reads your blog. I always knew that the animals were hurt but I never knew how much until I found peta2.com When the circus comes to town next time I'll be ready with a permit so I/we don't get chased by the law! Spohia

  6. Sophia I am so proud of you and your brothers, mom and dad too.. I know how much you love animals big or small. Its nice to see someone so young care so much.. Great job.

  7. Proud to be your Auntie, Sophia! Proud of Nohl and Drew too for standing for the cause! And Tom and Judy, thanks for posting this thoughtful and comprehensive blog post. You've all reminded me how I should be incensed as well. Poor animals - they deserve to be free.


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