Some see this as a win for animal-rights, others as a passing of a glorious era of circus history. We prefer to see it as another effort by the Man to suppress the worker. True, Karl Marx makes only three references to elephants in his Das Kapital (and one of them was a 19th century equivalent of a shout-out (a “Was geht ab, Elefantenmensch?“) to his buddy John Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man). But Marx saw this coming and warned the proletariat to be hip to what was sure to go down.
Marx pointed out that labor is the essential capital in all economies. That is axiomatic in all businesses as well.
In a circus – especially a traveling circus – elephants do the lifting and moving of six or seven men. They wear specially-fitted harnesses to erect tent canvas on the main poles, moved huge sleds of equipment and – if the Disney film is to be believed – put out fires or help humans shower with the spray from their apparently very clean trunks.
If the Man can replace expensive labor with cheaper labor, the costs are realized on the bottom line and the Man wins. If the more expensive labor is provided by the elephant, the elephant loses.
The elephant has lost its job for the same reason white-collar workers approaching their mid-50s lose their jobs – there are cheaper alternatives.
According to figures we just made up, it costs the same to feed one elephant or seven men. And unlike elephants, there are no advocacy groups pushing for better treatment of the human labor force. In fact, psychological studies we are inventing out of whole cloth show that on the spectrum between cute animal and human, the closer one gets to the human side, the less concern or empathy is felt for the subject.
We are not above the temptations facing the circus and admit we used a variety of animals in our acts over the years. When we started out, we used doves but found they were of limited value. They did not help us set-up or tear-down the act, could not (or more likely, would not) lift any objects heavier than twine, often refused to wear the expensive and custom-tailored harnesses we provided and they made a mess at inopportune times in hard to clean places.
We moved to rabbits, then weasels (both alive and dead), then cats, then dogs and finally Portuguese Pot-Bellied Pigs. All but the last species proved unworthy of our trust. The pigs were slightly larger than their cousins, the Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pigs, far more industrious and true to their breeding had the ability to sting with their dangling tentacles. The pigs took to the harness well and were very smart. In fact, they were so smart that we were forced to discontinue our relationship with them after they subleased our home whilst we were on a business trip, screwed-up our credit by falling for a Nigerian investment scam in our name (either a smart or not so smart move, we’re not sure) and got our new car dented during a late-night Taco Bell run.
The Man wants the lowest cost labor source and will do what is necessary to procure and keep that source. If it means firing some elephants just before they qualify for pensions, force them to buy insurance on the open market and apply for unemployment insurance, the Man doesn’t care. There are plenty who will take that job. If it means hiring younger, less intelligent or experienced animals to do the work for less money and fewer benefits, the Man is all over that idea.
We understand there are 18 elephants currently earning a pay check, three hots and cot from Ringling now set to be turned out to a central Florida pasture. They likely have not read the news reports and have no clue they are about to be canned. The circus, it appears, will let them be surprised on that final day. They’ll be getting ready for the first show and the Ringmaster will stop them as they walk towards the arena entrance, “Whoa, big guy! Where do you think you’re heading? That’s for performers only.”
The elephant will look confused and try to swipe its keycard on the scanner like it had done for so many years only to find he is now locked out. He will turn towards the Ringmaster and with doe-like eyes seek clarity.
“We’re going in a different direction,” the Ringmaster will say with a somber, conciliatory tone. “It’s not you. We need to cut costs across the board. Even I had to take a cut in pay.”
Now the elephant will watch as the other acts file past him to enter the ring to begin the show. Some will look at the elephant with pity – knowing what is happening – others will look on with confusion.
Perhaps tears will well in the big eyes as the mighty former employee sways and looks longing at the ring, its big ears perking up at the sound of the band beginning the anthem.
Slowly, and predictably without violence or any resistance, the big elephant will turn away from the entrance and walk towards the van in which he will travel to forced retirement.
“Think of it as a blessing,” the Ringmaster will offer for no reason other than to placate his own dark, complicit soul. “No more early mornings, heavy lifting or late nights.”
The elephant will barely acknowledge the Ringmaster, perhaps leaving a large, appropriate gift in the sawdust behind him as he moves into the brisk air and his new life. He will likely be pre-occupied with his own feelings of guilt or shame or disappointment or anxiety and will therefore not notice the six or seven new “temp” workers joining the circus on this their first day.