Although the beginnings of the circus date back to ancient Rome, the modern circus was first developed in 18th century Europe. In the 1790′s Englishman Johh Bill Ricketts promised to open a circus in the newly formed Unites States, and
on April 3, 1793 he produced the first performance in Philadelphia. This early circus emphasized equestrian feats and was geared toward adults unlike today’s family shows. Later, in the 1800s “freak shows” and exotic animals were introduced to the menagerie. Although the exploitation of conjoined twins, individuals with microcephaly, bearded women, and their sideshow brethren came under fire years ago, the treatment of animals in the circus continues to be a controversial topic. Still, in spite of the circus’s sometimes litigious background, clowns, cotton candy, and the three-ring show are still treasured by families, and particularly children, across these United States.
Fourteen years ago I graduated from Woodbridge Senior High School in Woodbridge, Va. I believe the 9-12 school was, at the time, the largest in Virginia if not the largest on the East Coast, with a population of somewhere around 3,000 students. I loved going to a big school because it offered a variety of electives to choose from, and an opportunity to meet many different types of people. But there was another bonus that came once a year — the circus! Because the school’s parking lot was giant, and in a prime location, the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus would pitch their big top on our asphalt each spring. On a couple of occasions our teachers allowed us to go out to the lot to watch the animals during class time, especially if the activity could be considered even loosely related to our course curriculum (the first time I went out was during my freshman biology class). I remember the tigers and elephants, and how beautiful they were — and begging my obliging mom to take me to the show!
Now that I’m a little older I have mixed feelings about the circus. I am absolutely amazed by the artistry and incredible feats accomplished by the human mind and body, which probably explains why I see Circque Du Soleil’s La Nouba ever time I go to Orlando. But while I can leave La Nouba and its all-human cast with a smile on my face, I feel a little sad after seeing other shows with animal performers. Like most people, I’m a proponent of animal rehabilitation, and I understand that sometimes this means an animal may not be eligible for re-release into the wild, but I can’t understand caging wild animals that should be free, or forcing them to work. Some animals enjoy work, but somehow I think job satisfaction doesn’t take priority over freedom.