Check Under the Trunk

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in town, and you're encouraged to inspect the animals for yourself

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in town, and you're encouraged to inspect the animals for yourself

Ringling Bros. Circus, Arriving in Town, Train Logo, July 2012
The famous circus trains arriving in to town. Photo by Karen Burd
Ringling Bros. Circus, Holding tails, July 2012
Two Asian elephants making the parade trek through the town. Photo by Karen Burd
Austin photo: News_Fully Charged_Poster
Ringling Bros. Circus, Arriving in Town, Train Logo, July 2012
Ringling Bros. Circus, Holding tails, July 2012

Whether you love it or hate it, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is back in Austin for the next five days.

The 280-person touring circus staff and the controversial 48 animal entertainers (including Bengal tigers, regular and bite-size horses and Asian elephants) are parked in the Frank Erwin center parking lot and finishing up the preparations for their eight upcoming performances set to launch this Wednesday through Sunday.

This most recent touring show is entitled Fully Charged and appears to involve a great deal of flashing lights, shiny costumes and small, controlled pyrotechnics.

Providing the promised "megawatts of thrills" are Tabayara the Tiger Trainer, the flying acrobatic Fearless Fernandez Brothers and The Human Fuse, who will light himself on fire for something ominously called "the human crossbow."

Plus, all the good-natured (but still terrifying) clowns you can playfully shove inside an electric car. Hand buzzers and other electricity-themed gags are sure to occupy the comedy itinerary for a show that emphasizes the wonder of Ben Franklin's famous accidental discovery. (Appropriate, as Ben Franklin sort of looked like a clown...)

Of course, most of the objections that naysayers have toward the circus involve something other than smiling clowns that may or may not try to steal your soul while you sleep.

Primary protestations are raised toward the inclusion of the 40-plus entertainment animals that live with, travel with and perform alongside the humans who choose to make the touring circus their homes. The animals, of course, don't get a choice in the matter since they are raised from birth in captivity on the Ringling Bros. grounds in Sarasota, Florida.

Much to our surprise, however, those grounds contain the 200-acre, $5 million Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation that is dedicated to the care and wellbeing of the Asian elephants that are otherwise threatened with extinction in the wild.

So maybe there are two sides to this animal-minded circus story. On the one hand, traveling on a train and doing tricks for screaming toddlers for a year is probably not high on an Asian elephant's to-do list, but neither is getting killed by poachers for their ivory in their natural habitat.

Which one is safer and provides a better quality of life? Without firsthand accounts, that's hard to say.

After all, are the animal entertainers in Hollywood any better off than circus animals? And if the trained circus performers have never known anything different and are well cared for, are they truly unhappy? Most importantly: is there still evidence of circus animals being tortured and abused, as groups like PETA and the ASPCA would have us believe?

To address our own lurking uneasiness towards the oft-maligned "Greatest Show on Earth," we asked these questions to Ringling Bros. Animal Care Specialist Ryan Henning, who was happy to share his thoughts with us during his travels to Austin.

To clarify his biased position, Henning grew up in a circus-loving family, as his uncle was the executive director of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis. After graduation, Henning chose to join Ringling Bros. because of its prestige and its commitment to "treating animals humanely."

Now Henning is part of the 40-member team of full-time animal care specialists who provide care for the traveling circus animals during each two-year tour across the country.

"It's a 24/7 job for us. We're either training or playing with the animals or we're on call — there's never a time we aren't thinking about these animals," says Henning over the phone during one of those off-times. "That way we really get to bond with the animals, who are really the true stars of the show."

After nine years of traveling and training with Ringling Bros., Henning is familiar with all of the criticisms that animal rights groups have lobbed at him and at the industry as a whole.

"I really can't talk on behalf of others, but I know that people focus their attention on us because we're the largest organization with the most animals, and that's understandable," he says. "I also know that most of the arguments people have are the same ones people have about animals in entertainment in general. You either totally oppose it or you don't care."

Ringling Bros. primary response to these criticisms is to follow and exceed all of the state and federal wildlife regulations for each one of the cities they visit. They check in with veterinarians in every city and follow to the tee the standards and practices of the USDA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

They make sure that all of their animals are 100 percent visible to the public, so that no malice or suspicion can arise regarding inhumane treatment. Starting Wednesday, for example, Austinites can come watch the six elephants being bathed and played with by their trainers in the Frank Erwin center parking lot.

"I am always open to showing people what we do and inviting them to meet the animals and see them in person. Once you do that, you can see that they're healthy and happy animals," explains Henning. "They really are like our children; we've known them since they were born."

With that side of the story presented, this circus takes on a far less menacing tone. But do you accept it given all the evidence that says otherwise? 

Now if only we could get those clowns to stop being so damn spooky...

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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presents: Fully Charged ignites at the Frank Erwin Center Wednesday, August 22 - Sunday, August 26. Tickets available through the Frank Erwin box office.