Each year, we’re given free circus passes to handout to students at the school where I teach. Most years I throw them in the trash. Others, I staple them to a list of things families can do instead of going to the circus. Always, I’m a little afraid I’m going to get in trouble for however I choose to handle it.
This year, the passes coincided with the photo to the left showing up in my social media newsfeed. Taken by Maddie Laustra, it shows a lion belonging to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s circus. They may be the largest and most well known circus but they’re far from the only one. My school hands out passes to the Shrine Circus.
I empathize with the pull the circus holds for children and families. I went once as a child and was enthralled by the sights and sounds and smells. I remember walking into the big tent buzzing with anticipation. But much as with my first childhood trip to the zoo, my feelings changed when I saw the animals. I think truly that if we humans don’t see the sadness and inherent wrongness of captive wild animals, it’s because we willfully refuse to look.
There would still be much wrong with the circus even if it was run at the highest standards such a spectacle could be held to. That is to say, even without abusive training and medical neglect and poor care practices, the circus would still be inhumane. There does not exist a scenario in which it’s okay to force wild animals into a living situation with no potential to emulate their natural lives, transport them constantly around the country in small living quarters, and train them to perform tricks and stunts for the sole purpose of human amusement.
Before you take your children to see a circus that uses animals, please get the facts and think about what kind of lessons you’d like for them to be learning. Then, consider your alternatives.
There are plenty of excellent ways to introduce your children to the wonders of animals while instilling empathy, compassion, good stewardship, and a connection to the world as a whole.
- Visit An Animal Free Circus! If you’re looking for a spectacle with acrobatics and entertainment and the kind of magic that makes the impossible seem possible, you can still have all that! And quite frankly, isn’t it made all the more enjoyable by knowing the performers are there by choice?
- Take a Trip to An Animal Sanctuary! Make sure it’s a reputable non-profit that offers sanctuary and rehabilitation to animals in need. This also serves as a great educational opportunity. You can talk to your children about why these animals need to live at the sanctuary rather than in the wild and discuss how humans can make better choices so that less animals need this type of safe haven in the future.
- Get Involved with Your Local Wildlife Rescue! Many wildlife rescues allow visitors, volunteers, and even temporary fosters. All take donations of items and often post a wish list on their website. Instead of donating online, let your children choose an item from the wish list to deliver to the rescue in person!
- Volunteer with or Foster for Your Local Animal Shelter! Puppies! Kittens! Dogs & cats of all sizes and personalities! For young children, volunteer opportunities at the shelter typically require the direct supervision of their parent/guardian. A wonderful way to get your children involved is bringing them along on your volunteer shift and having them sit outside the dog kennels or cat habitats and read to the animals. With fostering, you can find an animal (or animals!) that are a good fit for your household and get your children in on the act of serving as temporary guardians as you help animals in need find their homes. This option comes with the bonus of snuggles & puppy kisses!
- Go the Little Activist Route! Rather than simply not going to the circus, talk to your children about why. You can read a story, plan a lesson or activity, or simply have a heart to heart. Then brainstorm with your children all the different things you could do and the choices you could make that would help animals instead of hurting them.
- Learn All About Animal Safety & Responsible Pet Guardianship! In addition to teaching children the basics of pet guardianship and responsibility, it is important to teach them how to have safe and kind interactions. Do you have both dogs and children in your home already? Take it one step further and sign them up for a class together!
- Go for a Hike or a Nature Walk! Parks, hiking trails, and neighborhood strolls are all wonderful and low-impact ways to engage with wildlife. Looking for birds, bugs, squirrels, and more with your children is a great way to reconnect with the fact that we’re surrounded by wildlife all the time.
- Create a Wildlife Haven Right Where You Live! From simply putting out food or water to creating a certified wildlife habitat in your backyard, there are lots of amazing ways to bring the wildlife right to you in a way that helps both animals and the earth.
- Embark on a Wild Animal Research Project! Choose your favorite wild animal and get learning! Go to your local public library, hit the internet, and see how much you can find out about what makes lions, tigers, and bears tick.
- Never Stop Learning! As Maya Angelou said, when we know better, we do better. Knowledge is power and often serves as a gateway to compassion. Consider a subscription to a magazine like The Humane Society’s Kind News, Ranger Rick, or National Geographic Kids to bring knowledge straight to your doorstep. Plan a family movie night and rent a movie like Earth. Whatever you choose to do, know that the animals thank you for taking the time to learn about them and for using your knowledge to make the world a better place for us all.