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The Circus Leaves Town: Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus to Close (bbc.co.uk)
66 points by sohkamyung 189 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

From the article: "In the year since the elephants left, Feld says circus attendance dropped precipitously."

This is a great lesson to businesses in general - know if your critics are actually your core customers. The overlap between people who protested elephants and the people who attended the circus was pretty small. The company ended up listening to a very vocal minority and then lost a lot of business from the quiet group of customers for whom the elephants were the major draw and who then stopped buying tickets.

This also applies to open source projects and brings to mind DHH's article http://david.heinemeierhansson.com/2012/rails-is-omakase.htm...

I understand what you're trying to compare it to, but I don't think that this is always a valid argument. If what attracts the core customers is wrong in and of itself, it's not an excuse to continue it.

I have fond memories of the Circus Parade in Milwaukee when I was a child, but it was relying on the animals to draw people in for the most part, and the training done for the animals really isn't good. Vocal critics not being attendees is somewhat irrelevant in this case (and in many cases), because the core activity is what is wrong; it's not just a matter of preference.

When it comes to invidivual preferences, there is some wisdom to "appease the core audience, ignore the rest". But there are a lot of cases that aren't as neatly covered by such sentiment as some seem to think

> If what attracts the core customers is wrong in and of itself, it's not an excuse to continue it.

Tell that to all the illegal renters on AirBnB.

Edit: sorry that was a bit flip, but I don't think the conundrum is as easy as either of you have posed it.

I'm sorry but I don't even know what you're referring to, else I'd respond more completely. I can't really see the relationship between what you quoted and what you wrote.

There are several cities (NYC, Berlin?) where it is/was illegal to rent your apartment/condo for a short term, because then you're acting like a Hotel, but you're probably not meeting any of the hotel regulations, and you're not paying taxes that are specific to Hotels.

So. > If what attracts the core customers is wrong in and of itself, it's not an excuse to continue it.

"Being cruel to elephants" is to "Running a circus" as "Breaking Hotel laws in your city" is to "Running an AirBnb listing"

Both of these things are something "Wrong" that are done as a core part of a business.

Now, I have no idea what jgalt's actual conclusion is, his post was wrapped in some combination of sarcasm and "well they do it too!!!". But his conclusion is probably to open a single-man copper mine in the mountains.

Thank you for your take on it. I won't try to argue it since I feel it unfair to make you defend a conclusion you yourself don't actually know.

Well here's a data point for you. Before they announced that they were shutting down, they started to sell discounted tickets via Groupon - my circle of friends and I were happily sending each other links to the deal. But because some of the top Google results for Ringling Brothers were links to the websites (PETA?) with videos of elephants being struck or shocked with cattle prods, my wife and I decided against buying tickets. We're not PETA supporters or vocal on this topic, we just silently decided against visiting the circus.

It's the same thing with Sea World, after watching Blackfish on Netflix we decided against visiting Sea World during our trip to Florida. We didn't write letters or post about it on Facebook, just silently declined to visit it.

That's a whole industrial complex in of itself. Their thirst to shut things down is unquenchable, as they aren't to just going after circus, sea worlds, and farms, but they are also going after zoos and such.

and of course they will never be satisfied, making 'documentaries' and collecting donations is big business. they wont ever say 'well there is no more good to do, lets close doors'. They will just take their agenda to the next victim.

To me, PETA is neither friend nor foe.

I am a beekeeper. PETA says I exploit the bees and steal honey from the rightful owners. So we disagree.

Nonetheless PETA does a public service by working to expose behind-the-scenes treatment of animals. You can derive your own moral conclusion of their findings. Most people find this treatment abusive. I agree with them.

I'm not sure if you can call the people torturing animals on tape 'victims' but sure.

Circuses, farms, and zoos are hardly "victims." Aside from a handful of zoos that do good (by protecting and breeding endangered animals), most just profit from the existence of other living creatures. Hard for me to shed a tear about them shutting their doors.

yes, go after those nefarious zoosters making copious profits.

It can both be an industrial complex and the morally correct thing to do.

Who is "they" in this comment?

Here's another data point. I've never been to one of their shows. I don't plan on it. I'll go if I have time. Elephants or no elephants does not contribute to my decision.

I would I think a more valuable lesson would be to not start a business that relies on animal cruelty for success. Vocal minority or not, what's right is right.

Unless you are a vegetarian you are being hypocritical.

One could also characterize your (and GP) view as NIMBYism. I want animal happiness, and they should give up what they like for that.

In the production of food from animals, are they cruel treated?

Yes. The chicken industry is the most egregious example, but all industrialised meat production suffers from abuse problems to some degree.

Ever been to a commercial pig farm or looked into the conditions at commercial milk production facilities?

I'm sure there's a range, and I've no strong feelings in either direction on the matter (had great wagyu beef last night), but I do believe there is probably a good bit of inhumane treatment in our food supply chain, sadly enough.

The issue is that cities and entire states (RI and CA) started banning elephants, so the "vocal minority" they listened to was the government. You're making it sound like they screwed up by following the law.

CA is a big market, so harder to write off; Rhode Island is easy to write off.

There are certainly differing opinions on what constitutes animal cruelty and is moral or immoral [e.g., killing and eating them]. So what is "right" is not so clear cut.

> There are certainly differing opinions on what constitutes animal cruelty and is moral or immoral [e.g., killing and eating them]. So what is "right" is not so clear cut.

What does this kind of argument say about the morality slavery in 1860? Opinions were strongly divided, therefore was it not so clear cut?

Not really the same thing. Causing suffering to a sentient being carries a different set of philosophical implications than to a being that operates on instinct.

Case in point: Most everyone is opposed to people owning people, but very few are opposed to people owning other animals.

Arguments are divided on what constitutes a "sentient being" though. There are plenty of science-fiction morality plays around at what points robots/ai should be considered sentient. At one point tribal cultures were seen as pretty much "not sentient" for all intents and purposes.

Can you give me a test that will definitely say if a being is sentient or not that doesn't basically boil down to "is this being a human or not?"

> Case in point: Most everyone is opposed to people owning people, but very few are opposed to people owning other animals.

There have been cultures where "very few people" were opposed to human sacrifice. This is meaningless as an argument.

When we're talking about what is socially acceptable, and making comparisons to slavery as was done elsewhere in this thread, that is the entire argument.

The argument is drawing parallels between slavery (currently not socially acceptable) and treatment of animals as livestock (currently socially acceptable). You're basically responding to this argument by regurgitating what current status quo is. Stating "the status quo is the status quo" isn't an argument on why the status quo is justified. It's just a statement of fact.

It's pretty clear at this point that elephants operate on more than raw instinct.

I'd say the better business lesson is that you shouldn't rely on stuff you have to keep secret so people don't get outraged.

I don't know when the circus died, but I think it is more than the elephants missing. I took my kid to see the Circus Extreme show this year, since it's their last tour. That's not the circus, and my parents and grandparents would say the same thing. It didn't look, smell or sound anything like what I knew as "the circus." My kid is never going to know that. He was quite amused and entertained by the show, though. I have to say it was a good show but I came with these old ideas about "the circus."

When we got home I found a copy of [0] and my wife and I got pretty nostalgic.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Greatest_Show_on_Earth_(fi...

Your kid will likely never know many other forms of entertainment: circus sideshows that objectify people with extreme deformities (circuses haven't had these in ages), for instance. Or Wild Bill's western shows. Or ancient Roman gladiator combat shows, with performers literally fighting to the death, and other people getting killed by lions. Do you think your kid is missing out by not seeing these firsthand?

It's a piece of culture that has just always been there (from the perspective of my life), it was passed on to me and when we talk about it, he won't have the same understanding as I.

I've been thinking a bit lately about how nothing's the same for him as when I was growing up. These experiences that we can share between generations are special.

That's a bit like saying that only those who bought lots of cotton were eligible to criticize slavery in the USA.

He's not saying the protesters are wrong. He's saying that listening to them for business decisions doesn't always make sense. If they wouldn't pay you anyhow, then there's not much point in listening to them.

In this case, the people protesting aren't people who would have paid for the show anyhow. If you make the show worse to please them, you haven't actually gained anything financially.

Ethics and morals are a different discussion, but IMO you shouldn't need protesters to know your own ethical/moral stance.

I believe this is exactly an "ethics and morals" discussion, and apparently protesters were needed to stop the practice.

As the negative impact on the circus business in the case at hand shows, you can't separate the ethics and morals from the business model, just like with slavery-based cotton production. "Yeah, you may be right, but let's put the morals of slavery aside while we're discussing the bottom line of my plantation" will not fly.

I think the real lesson is this: if your business model is built on immorality, you should just save everyone the trouble and shut down voluntarily.

An interesting theory I heard for why the circus folded now, rather than at some later date, involves the age of the circus train.

Rail cars are 'certified' to run on Class 1 railroads for 40 years post-build, and once they reach 40 years old they need to be inspected and have their running gear rebuilt. This allegedly costs around $150,000 per car, and only certifies the car for another 10 years. Based on the auction of the circus train, the circus owns/owned 127 cars.

So while the circus might have been solvent, if a large number of the train cars were coming up on a rebuild it might have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

Here is a reddit thread discussing it a bit: https://www.reddit.com/r/trains/comments/5o3ih1/i_wonder_wha...

This is a great example, though, of why 'EBITDA' is such a terrible metric of profitability. Depreciation (which is the way this rail car certification would likely be accounted for) is a real (if deferred) cost.

It's not a terrible metric. It's only bad for companies who have high debt loads, or companies who have to periodically upgrade costly equipment.

These downsides to EBITDA are well known and should weigh on the mind of anyone who looks at the metric.

For a company that rents all its equipment, EBITDA is a pretty good metric.

> It's not a terrible metric. It's only bad for companies who have high debt loads, or companies who have to periodically upgrade costly equipment.

Right, ignoring depreciation and debt service is only horrible for assessing companies with significant depreciation or debt service.

> For a company that rents all its equipment, EBITDA is a pretty good metric.

Sure, if you don't have significant depreciation/amortization and debt service, EBITDA is just an approximationation of EBT, which is a perfectly good measure.

And EBT's a perfectly good measure even for companies with debt service and depreciating equipment.

Whether you're an animal rights activist or not, the fact of the matter is EVERYONE thinks it's wrong to abuse animals. People will go to great lengths to pretend animal cruelty isn't happening and the circus relied on secrecy over how its animals were treated to survive. Once video started coming out, it was the beginning of the end.

If you haven't seen any of the undercover videos and have doubts, a quick google search will find hundreds. For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECspj0daAlE

>Whether you're an animal rights activist or not, the fact of the matter is EVERYONE thinks it's wrong to abuse animals.

That's not true. There's plenty of people who think animal cruelty and abuse is just fine. There's no shortage of people who abuse animals, for instance, so obviously they don't think it's wrong. They may not be a majority of the population, but they exist.

I think "plenty" is debatable. Most people are good at IGNORING animal cruelty (ie: where did my veal dinner come from?), but it is the exception that people actively think it's fine (dog fighting, etc). Once animal abuse is public knowledge (especially against certain more-beloved animals) it is hard for society to forgive. Sea World, the circus, puppy mills, etc. Those things are all going away now.

So what you're saying is because some people abuse dogs, no people should be able to own dogs.. TIME TO BAN DOG OWNERSHIP!

When did that comment say anything like that?

I don't think elephants actually added much to their show. I have taken my kids twice in last few years... once with elephants and another one more recently without and we definitely preferred the more recent one. If it all comes down to elephants they should really have no problem staying in business IMO. I even saw less protesters at the more recent one. Only reasoning I can think of this not working is if without elephants they have to rely on more humans and effects than before that may be more expensive to produce.

Serious question: Is the elephant thing your view or your kids' also? I loved the (now discontinued) Aladdin show at Disneyland, and the highlight of the show (judging from the crowd's reaction) seemed to be when the 'elephant' entered.

I saw the last show for the "red team" in Providence, Rhode Island. While I have seen a number of Cirque du Soleil (CdS) shows over the last 10 years, I haven't seen Ringling Bros. (RB) in about 20 years. The difference I immediately noticed was the ticket price. A CdS show ranges anywhere from $40 to $120. My seat at RB, on the sixth row, cost $55. I understand the desire to keep the show accessible to all families, but the price disparity between the two companies was huge. The production quality was good, but not as high as that of CdS.

That said, I enjoyed the show and the fact that it is accessible to people at most income levels. Audience members were permitted to go on the performance floor 30 minutes before the show. We could interact with the performers, who were doing a few mini-shows, and get a much closer look. That sort of access costs over $100 at Cirque du Soleil.

Besides ticket price and production quality, another factor working against Ringling Bros. is the fact that everyone lives on the train. Entire families travel to every city. They have a school on the train. When everyone came out at the end of the show, there were at least 200 people of varying ages—babies to adults. That can't be cheap. I'm not sure if Cirque du Soleil does the same for their performers.

Just my humble opinion, but I think the loss of the circus will actually not be a great help to the conservation of these wonderful animals.

Elephants are in the public imagination largely due to the circus and the zoo. We like elephants because we can actually go and see them, which makes us want to keep them around. No one really does anything [donate, protest] about certain endangered species, like the Saola because they aren't in the public eye. Elephants, rhinoceros and Tigers have very extensive programs to protect them, even large national parks, because there is large public support for their conservation. The panda likewise would simply be a curiosity and evolutionary dead end if it wasn't for human intervention.

Once the public doesn't even know what an elephant looks like, the public support will diminish. Certainly there has been many abuses in the circus [like in many other things human beings do], but I just hope that people don't forget about the elephants. I would say that one of the reasons that they haven't been hunted to extinction was due to the fact that many children remember with fondness these wonderful animals, and that contact they had with them was from the circus.

A few of my friends have had similar experiences at the circus.

We all went when we were very young, so it's a whirlwind experience for kids.

Then as we got older -- like 8 or older -- it was better to go to the Zoo to see the animals.

Last time I went to the circus it sucked. Half the show was on some TV with cartoon animals. No one pays $$$ for a ticket $$$ for parking, $$$ for a cup of soda to watch cartoons on a TV.

It's just another industry that needs to be disrupted. I'm with you on what we think of as "the circus", but there's no reason traveling entertainment can't change. My daughter is just old enough to be interested so we took her to the circus last year, but it was a circus put on by http://www.smirkus.org/ and it was terrific. There's no attempt at professional gloss and it's not about selling plastic crap (there's a bit but it's fundraising for the camp) ; it was just teenagers from all around the country putting on a great performance.

It's already been disrupted, the disruptor is called Cirque du Soleil.

That's not a circus, it's a dance/art show.

Circus has been an evolving art form for a long time (starting out 250 years ago as pure equestrian shows); the contemporary circus genre of which Cirque de Soleil is one of the more popular examples is a fairly new development with circus, but certainly recognizable as an example of it that has close ties to it's immediate predecessors.

Good riddance.

I've never liked the circus.

1) I know it's very individual, but when it comes to the arts (as opposed to work), I've always liked soulful performance over replicability. I'd rather take Bob Dylans or Tom Waits terrible singing (while excellent songwriting), over kick-ass scales and guitar riffs of Dreamtheater (the circus in this scenario).

While I can appreciate the skill behind Yngwe Malmsteens playing (or more current examples), or doing flips 20 feet in the air between hanging in rings, it's not something I enjoy watching/hearing.

2) Clowns are creepy, and I don't like slapstick.

3) The concept of the circus is 250 years old (in its modern form), and just in the last 10 years you can see more impressive feats on youtube (or some street corners), where everyone can get a venue.

4) Animal cruelty.

TLDR; It's antiquated and serves no purpose anymore (IMHO).

The only purpose it ever served was entertainment.

Now, without one of the biggest draws, people aren't going.

On one hand, I'm happy to hear that they'll no longer be mistreating animals but on the other hand, let's not pretend that those of us who wear fur or leather or eat meat are somehow less responsible for animal cruelty.

I believe that someone who eats chicken is less cruel than someone who enslaves and tortures an elephant for several decades.

The world consumes 50 billion chickens a year.

Chickens are stupid and we try not to torture them. Elephants are smart and we steal them from their mothers, chain them up, break their spirits, beat them, etc. Don't Tell me you can't see any difference.

As a former rural kid; the idea that chickens are not tortured is a widespread cultural fantasy that has more to do with keeping our impression of the quality and power of our moral judgements intact than anything to do with the lives of chickens.

I am not trying to crucify you by any means! I have eaten more than my share of chickens, and have been horrified by the suffering of elephants as well.

I am instead participating in this discussion because I think that the way this argument is structured betrays the weakness of our way of conceiving of allowable/forbidden indifference to another creature with which we can also share emotional experiences. Of course we must eat, and there is vast culture around eating animals or using them as tools or entertainers.

Still, it doesn't mean we need to justify it with swiss-cheese moralizing about intelligence.

Have you ever seen how chickens are raised for mass-scale meat production?

I used to catch the bus across the street from a chicken-processing plant. They live in cages that are just large enough for the chicken itself, and the cages are stacked quite high, so that except for the top level, all of them are constantly getting waste dumped on them by the chickens further up in the stack.

Seems pretty torturous to me.

You've obviously never spent any time around chickens. They are not stupid by any means. They are able to solve problems, they are social, they have individual personalities.

Chickens aren't really stupid.

You're wrong about leather. Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry: no one kills cows for their skin. Cows are killed for their meat, and the hides are probably fairly worthless until they're processed into leather. If beef production were to suddenly stop (due to lab-grown meat, for instance), cow leather would disappear too. Cow leather isn't even all that great, compared to some other animals' leather (like goats), it's just a lot cheaper because of the beef industry.

Finally, there's different degrees of cruelty. In theory, at least, it should be perfectly possible to raise and slaughter cows humanely. You feed it and give it pasture to graze on, and then one day when it's mature you suddenly chop its head off. Is having regular food, vet care, space to roam free from predators really a bad life? Of course, in reality many of the handlers can be abusive, and that should be policed, but this isn't really comparable to the poor elephants who were abused every day to "train" them, and forced to perform.

I don't believe that I limited my comment to cow leather.

It's all interconnected. The price of meat is influenced by the fact that money can be made selling the hides to leather makers and the bones for other purposes, including recovering collagen.

I'm not sure if animals would agree that an easy life free from random predation is much better than a harder life that comes with freedom. One could argue that the Eloi have a similar arrangement with the Morlocks.

I'm not arguing against meat eating or leather wearing, I do both. I'm just pointing out that there are more widespread examples of animals enduring cruel treatment than the circus.

>I don't believe that I limited my comment to cow leather.

I did. Usually, when people talk about "leather", they're talking about cow leather, not goat leather, sheepskin, alligator skin, etc. Usually, those other things, which are far more rare and expensive, are explicitly named. No one with an alligator-skin handbag calls it a "leather handbag". If cow meat magically became worthless because no one wanted to eat it any more (or even use it for pet food), no one would be killing cows for their skin IMO. The price would be too high, and you could get the skins from other animals instead. Goat leather is much nicer than cow leather, for instance. Why pay a ton for cow leather when you can have something better instead for that price? We only use it so much because it's cheap, and because synthetic alternatives aren't quite as good yet (though that's changing).

>I'm not sure if animals would agree that an easy life free from random predation is much better than a harder life that comes with freedom.

That's not the alternative. Cows are not wild animals. They're domesticated; they only exist because we bred them to be the way they are. They couldn't even survive in the wild. This isn't like alligators being hunted in the wild swamps of FL for their skins. So the alternative is 1. an easy life free from random predation or 2. not existing at all. The same alternative exists for any livestock animal: it's either be born into a life being used by humans somehow, or not be born at all. Which is better? I really don't know. I'm not sure anyone can know that really, since we've never had to live that life, and can't really know the thoughts and desires of these animals. Do chickens living at a crowded Tyson facility, confined to a tiny cage and being shat on by chickens in little cages stacked on top of them, hate their lives so much that they wish they'd never been born? Maybe. Do chickens raised in a family's backyard with lots of space to roam and a henhouse they can enter or leave at will, but who one day get grabbed and flipped upside-down and their head chopped off, prefer they'd never been born? Somehow I doubt it, until that last fateful day (which they probably didn't know was coming; they're probably not smart enough to wonder "hey, why aren't there any elderly chickens here?").

Cirque de Soleil is still around, but they cater to people who want a classy, but more kid friendly, and arguably more consistently entertaining alternative to theater.

More kid friendly? I would say the opposite they are more adult friendly then Ringling.

Also Glob Trotters, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live have taken over and owned by the same company.

More kid friendly and consistently entertaining than theater, not Ringling. I say more consistently entertaining, because you never know what you're going to get with theater. .

Theater is NEVER kid friendly unless it is Barney Live. Even the High School Productions are kind of over the top for my taste. The last one I saw and I knew better was "Rent" for High School. Then the next year was "Chicago".

Yeah, they're not for me either, but at least they're trying to evolve the concepts.

Nice blog post.

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