Technology having removed most physical activity from my days, I resolve to walk the two miles to Brooklyn’s Barclay Center. In front of me, children clasp their parents’ hands. Activists wave pictures of chained animals in the faces of families entering the stadium.
As I make my way to my seat, the cold from the icy stage creates a morgue-like atmosphere. The pre-show displays the tigers, a warm dose of orange contained within a chain link fence. “Here, Kashmir,” croons the trainer in his blue-and-red-spangled spangled uniform, “Good boy, Kashmir.” Kashmir appears relieved to return to the train of cages. The stage grows dark as the cages recede. “The Final Countdown” starts playing.
Starry lighting provides a galactic effect, followed by astronauts performing “in zero gravity” on a spindly apparatus. Their obvious safety cords (airbrushed out of the program) get the show off to a disappointing start. Large Christmas-like ornaments suspended moderately high above the ice suddenly break open to grinning women straddling two shells, while the evil Tatiana, with the goal of “complete circus domination,” glides across the frozen floor in a plastic iceberg. The cool-toned costumes — some accented in iridescent fluorescent yellows — come across as feeble. While watching the clowns vamp and skate in barbaric circles, I almost miss the return of the Big Cats.
Thanks to animal rights activists, the lions and tigers are no longer forced to perform risky stunts. In a zoo, one might witness a beast wandering a few feet before slumping to the ground, so the effect of seeing them lie down on command at a circus doesn’t seem all that impressive. There are some leaps over low obstacles, and the tigers perch on stools, allowing admiration of their “remarkable beauty.” A lion kisses the trainer in Hollywood fashion. The trapeze artists enthrall the audience. I’m thrilled when one acrobat misses the hands of his swinging partner, but a safe landing in the net below is never a question. An agile little dog, some bemused pigs, and a team of regal llamas steal the show, proving that we are most amazed when animals remind us of their likeness to ourselves.
During intermission, a big TV screen presents the plight of endangered animals, and (somewhat defensively, it seems) how well the retired elephants are cared for in their Florida sanctuary, which was established after Tyke’s death. We are encouraged to do more research on endangered wildlife as the icy floor emanates its chill.
It has been said that circuses and elephants will always go together. It began when Jumbo, the African elephant whose name is synonymous with the glorious excess of the circus, was purchased from a London zoo by PT Barnum in 1882. The story goes that Barnum was utterly enchanted by seeing Jumbo cheerfully carrying children on his back in an elephant saddle. Jumbo fiercely resisted leaving the zoo for a short-lived career in the circus. Riding the noisy trains would scare him into reaching out his trunk to touch his trainer, Scotty, lying in a nearby bunk, for assurance. In retrospect, given that Jumbo would be hit and killed by a train in 1885, his fear seems justified.
After displaying a taxidermy Jumbo at his circus for a while, Barnum would donate the elephant’s remains to Tufts University in Boston, where the beloved mascot presided over a study hall. A 1975 fire would reduce the famous elephant to ashes now kept at Tufts in a peanut butter jar. Jumbo’s tail is all that remains intact.
Back in the late 19th century, “to see the elephant” meant knowing the world. It connoted a certain level of sophistication, of having seen it all. Once home, having missed the elephants at the circus, I went online in the comfort of my cage to watch videos of their 2016 performances. As we push so many species to the brink, let’s not forget the elephants’ sacrifice. Soon there might be little left to see in “this world” but ourselves.