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Remembering Jack London — and Ringling’s animal-free shows

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A caricature of Jack London, looking through an empty liquor bottle in front of the manuscript of “Martin Eden.” (Courtesy photo)
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On the centennial of San Francisco native son Jack London’s death, it’s worth reflecting on his legacy for animals. Most known for his writings about animals in the wild, London also cared deeply about their captive counterparts. Shortly before his death, London, having observed — and been appalled by — circus training methods, wrote from Glen Ellen that “behind ninety-nine of every hundred trained-animal” acts lies “cold-blooded, conscious, deliberate cruelty and torment. … Cruelty, as a fine art, has attained its perfect flower in the trained-animal world.”

He urged “all humans” to “inform themselves” of the “inevitable and eternal cruelty” inherent in animal acts, and to walk out during animal performances. “Show the management” that animal acts “are unpopular,” and they will stop offering them, London promised.

And he was right. Though he didn’t live to see it, his words inspired a Jack London Club whose nearly 1 million members were urged to distribute literature outside of circuses, contact the press and circus management, and, especially, walk out during animal acts.

These protests worked.

In 1925, the press reported that Ringling had “discarded” animal acts “for all time” and quoted Charles Ringling as explaining: “There has been enough criticism by the public of wild-animal acts to warrant us in withdrawing them, as a quite common impression is prevalent that tigers, lions, etc. are taught by very rough methods, and that it is cruel to force them through their stunts.”

Of course, Ringling’s animal acts did not disappear “for all time.” After four years, with the public preoccupied by the Great Depression, the circus brought back the animals.

Earlier this year, citing shifting cultural values, Ringling again ended its elephant acts. But the circus continues to haul lions, tigers and dozens of other animals around and to force them to perform tricks under the threat of punishment.

According to the sworn testimony of a former Ringling employee, handlers regularly beat tigers with sticks, broom handles and metal rods. An undercover investigation confirmed this abuse, revealing numerous incidents in which tigers were forcefully struck. A whistleblower also reported that handlers intentionally slammed cats’ tails in cage doors. And the Department of Agriculture cited Ringling for wounding a tiger by closing her tail in a gate.

In addition to suffering physical abuse, animals with Ringling are denied everything that’s natural and important to them. Lions and tigers have vast home ranges in the wild, but inspection reports and sworn eyewitness statements show that the circus routinely confines these animals to tiny cages around the clock, but for the few moments that they’re on stage.

And while Ringling’s human staff travels in the comfort of air-conditioning, big cats have suffered heatstroke. A young lion died while being transported through the Mojave Desert in a poorly ventilated boxcar. Despite extreme temperatures and the pleas of the lion’s caretaker, Ringling refused to stop the train to check on the animal. In another incident, two tigers traveling with Ringling injured themselves trying to escape from an overheated boxcar.

Recognizing, as London did, the cruelty inherent in wild animal acts, countries around the world have banned them. But America lags woefully behind. As a San Francisco native, London would be proud that last year The City passed a law prohibiting wild animal acts, and that earlier this year California followed Rhode Island’s lead and banned the use of cruel bullhooks on elephants. But that didn’t stop Ringling from hauling lions, tigers and other animals into other cities across California and America.

More than a century after London wrote about the horrors of circus animal abuse, let’s ban animal acts once and for all. Just in time for the 100th anniversary of his death, the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act was introduced in Congress to ban the use of wild animals in circuses. As London urged, each and every one of us should take responsibility for pushing for this long overdue change. Inform yourself of the “inevitable and eternal cruelty,” educate others and show that animal acts will no longer be tolerated.

Delcianna J. Winders is the academic fellow in Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Program, a Jack London fan and a native of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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