It's springtime in Pennsylvania.
The birds have returned to their morning singing rituals, garden preparations have begun, and our cherry blossom tree is budding.
I love spring. I love spring as it brings hope for new life and warmer weather. I love spring because it brings the smell of fresh dirt. I love spring because it's not winter.
If you live in my hometown, spring also means the return of the Irem Shrine Circus.
As a child, the arrival of the circus was a big deal. Popcorn, candy apples, inflatable guitars, and those magical yo-yo things that roll over a metal hook without falling off. The circus is at the local armory, and I remember it being big, exciting, and magical.
And then there were the animals.
As a kid, you don't really have much interest in the human acts. Trapeze artists are all well and good, clowns too, but every child wants to marvel at the majestic elephants and the graceful tigers.
I was no exception. I'm a third generation elephant lover, so I waited anxiously for those beautiful beasts to march into the ring. I squeeled in delight as they spun in circles, danced in a conga line, and held poses that seemed to defy the laws of physics for a six ton creature—it was all so incredible.
When I moved back to Pennsylvania over five years ago, I took my oldest—at that time he was an awestruck two-year-old—to the circus. I wanted to instil the same sense of wonder in his little heart. We were going to see the elephants.
Instead of feeling joyful, I felt this strange sense of remorse in that audience. The armory seemed darker and dirtier than I remembered. The sound system was crackly and too loud to be distinguishable. The acts were hard to see no matter where we sat. The floor was sticky. It smelled.
And then there were the animals.
Nothing could have prepared me for watching the once highly anticipated animals as they performed for the hundreds of eyes that waited. I suddenly understood where the sense of unease was coming from: this wasn't a show to laugh and applaud, this was a sad display of abuse.
A tiger waiting to perform paced mindlessly in his small cage during intermission, stopping only once to turn its backside to the gathered, gawking children and spray. During the performance, it jumped through hoops and over hurdles while whips cracked and the audience roared.
When it was time for the pachyderms, I watched in disbelief. Maybe it was my childhood memory distoring reality, but I remembered several elephants—now, a single elephant performed for restless, screaming children and their annoyed parents.
It was all so sad.
It was all so unnatural and cruel.
We haven't returned to the circus since that year, and I don't anticipate that changing. During my son's kindergarten year he was invited on a school trip to the circus. I checked the "will not be attending" box and spent an anti-circus day with him instead. We skipped school, went out for lunch, went to the park, and blew money in an arcade.
We talked at length about the treatment of the animals, what it takes to train (or break) an animal for performance purposes, and why our opting out was an important step in raising awareness for these poor creatures.
Every dollar spent is a vote cast, and I won't raise my children to believe that animal cruelty is money well spent.
Please join our family and boycott circuses that use animals.