If there were ever any doubt about the overwhelming shift in the public’s attitude regarding using animals for “entertainment,” it was shattered by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which exposed SeaWorld’s long history of exploiting orcas and the lies that the theme-park operator uses to justify doing so.
Caring people were outraged, and the repercussions were immediate: The public turned away from SeaWorld en masse, the company’s revenue and stock value nose-dived, advertisers ended their partnerships with the marine abusement park, and travel companies stopped promoting it.
The fallout didn’t stop there. Legislation to ban orca breeding and restrict performances was introduced at state and federal levels, and in 2016, the Orca Protection Act became law in California.
Did SeaWorld respond by acknowledging the writing on the wall and transferring the orcas to seaside sanctuaries where they could flourish? No. Instead, it followed the blueprint of so many other failing companies and eliminated jobs, giving more than 1,000 employees their walking papers.
The documentary’s aftershocks, though, were felt beyond the parks’ barren concrete tanks.
Like SeaWorld, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had long been condemned by animal rights groups and their supporters for its abuse of elephants, lions, tigers, and other animals.
The circus broke the spirits of baby elephants by separating them from their mothers, tying them down, and beating them with sharp, metal-tipped weapons called bullhooks. It chained elephants in cramped, fetid boxcars and hauled them across the country, then kept them shackled until it was time to force them to perform. And it confined big cats to transport cages that barely left room for them to turn around, whipped them during training and performances, and then bullied them back into the tiny, drab cages.
As compassionate people were calling the circus out, municipalities across the U.S. started dropping the hammer. Miami Beach, Florida, and Austin, Texas, were among those that sent elephant abusers packing by prohibiting the use of bullhooks, while statewide bans were enacted in Rhode Island and California. Other cities, such as Asheville, North Carolina, and Missoula, Montana, joined the growing number that banned the exhibition of wild or exotic animals in traveling shows. And after 146 years of exploitation, Ringling finally shut its doors.
Soon after Ringling went dark, New York City and Santa Fe, New Mexico, slammed the door on the use of wild animals in circuses and the states of Illinois and New York banned the use of elephants in traveling shows, sending a clear message to other circuses that trade on the suffering of animals. It wasn’t lost on the new owner of Kelly Miller Circus: In January 2018, he announced that his acts wouldn’t use exotic animals.
Dozens of travel agencies have also recognized their clients’ concerns about using animals for entertainment and have removed elephant rides from their itineraries. Before elephants will let humans climb onto their backs, they’re physically and psychologically abused in a process commonly called “breaking.” For this reason, Instagram launched an alert system that shows users who search for the hashtag “elephant rides”—as well as others such as “dolphin kiss”—a message warning of the cruelty inherent in these activities. Forward-thinking companies are no longer booking swim-with-dolphins excursions or tiger-petting interactions, since these animals are also denied everything that is natural and important to them and are known to suffer in captivity. The popular dating app Tinder even formally requested that users take down photos of themselves with captive tigers, contending, “Wild animals deserve to live in the wild.” The National Aquarium in Baltimore took the groundbreaking step of announcing that the bottlenose dolphins at its facility will be released into a seaside sanctuary by 2020.
Other companies, including Expedia, are helping travelers make kind choices by launching educational portals to arm them with the information they need to ensure that their itineraries don’t support cruelty to animals.
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