Early this year Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would be shutting down with the final installment of the “Greatest Show on Earth” this May. This is at least partially a result of one final trick from the wildly popular Barnum & Bailey performing elephants — they disappeared.
Tickets sales for the circus really slumped after the touring elephants were retired in mid-2016 to the point that, when paired with high operating costs, the business became unsustainable. Of course, animal rights activist organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), were behind the push to pull elephants from the circus.
The event attracts roughly 10 million visitors a year who will now have to seek new venues to get their fix of exotic animals and human oddities galore. There is no doubt that the circus that ran for nearly 150 years will be missed by many, but as the legendary Barnum & Bailey fades from our memories in the name of “progress,” will the thought of performing elephants one day be as foreign as phones with cords that hang on the wall and 8-track players?
The circus is just one more victim in a long line of animal-human relationships no longer a part of our society. Human-animal relationships have changed in recent generations in ways that were once fairly common and accepted, but nearly unimaginable today. Here are a couple of examples.
The FFA pest hunt
My father recently relayed to me that back in his high school days, he would gather a bunch of buddies after school multiple days a week to visit pest-infested barns in the tri-county area to shoot rats, pigeons and starlings. He fondly reminisced about going into the barns, shutting off the lights and listening as the rats crawled out from their hiding spots before turning the lights back on and blasting away with their .22s and doing their best to avoid putting holes in the barn siding. He spent many hours engaged in this pursuit that was both enjoyable and a very valuable service for the area farmers in the days before grain bins and extensive grain handling systems. Rats and birds could do extensive damage to a crop stored in a corncrib.
This is the part that really gets me though. After each successful hunt, my father and his friends would cut off the rat tales and bird heads from their quarry to fill garbage sacks that they would take to school. There the pest parts were carefully tallied and a running score was kept to earn extra credit for class. The competition was countywide and the top pest hunters were invited to an end-of-year banquet to recognize their success. This story of the FFA pest hunt (which I had never heard of) led to several questions.
1. How much property damage was done to the barns and did it offset the value of the service being provided? Dad claimed that the benefits outweighed the costs for the farmers.
2. Can you imagine what would happen to a student who showed up to school today carrying a bag stuffed full of chopped-off rat tails? I would guess at the very least there would be some extensive counseling.
3. Whose incredibly unpleasant job was it to count the rat-tails and bird heads after they had been sitting in a trash bag since the previous day? The FFA advisor?
4. What did they do with the animal parts after they were tallied?
5. What did they serve for dinner at the Pest Hunt Banquet?
One question that did not come up was “Why don’t they do this anymore?”
Around 1925 it was discovered that significant amounts of human chorionic gonadotropin hormone were only found in pregnant women. This meant that early pregnancy could be detected by testing for this hormone. To do this, a woman’s urine was injected into female rabbits, mice or rats and the animal’s ovaries would be examined a couple days later through a surgery that would typically end the animal’s life. If the ovaries were enlarged it would mean that the woman was pregnant. It was a common misconception that the injected mammal would die only if the woman was pregnant and this led to the somewhat misleading phrase “the rabbit died” for a positive pregnancy test. In the harsh reality of the rabbit test, the rabbit would die either way in most cases.
Think for a moment about a modern PETA response to an animal life sacrificing pregnancy test. Wow. I can’t imagine that the “rabbit test” for pregnancy was all that common, but it was used enough that references to it found their way into popular culture. Though I never heard of this until a recent Sunday school class (you never know what kinds of interesting stuff comes up in Sunday school), there was a MASH episode that covered the subject when “Hot Lips” Houlihan wondered if she was pregnant and Radar’s cherished rabbit was the only testing option available. The top-notch M*A*S*H docs solved the dilemma with careful surgery to do the test and spare the bunny’s life.
Aerosmith also referenced the “rabbit test” topic in the popular rock song “Sweet Emotion” in one of the verses: “You’re telling me things but your girlfriend lied. You can’t catch me ’cause the rabbit done died.”
In the end, as a society we are probably better off without the “rabbit test” and barn siding, school boards and FFA students are probably all a bit safer in the absence of school-sanctioned Pest Hunts. But, I often marvel at how the extreme views of a few have the incredible power to shape life and society for the rest of us. While the disappearance of elephants from the circus does nothing to impact my daily reality, there are people out there who had their lives drastically altered for the worse with the end of the incredible era of Barnum & Bailey. Parts of their lives were destroyed based on the whims of a few people with a misguided agenda. It makes me wonder in a society such as ours where animal rights sometimes seem to trump those of humans, who’s the rabbit now?