Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Ringling Bros. to Sea World, Americans Stand Up for Animals

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Ringling Bros. to Sea World, Americans Stand Up for Animals

Article excerpt

In the wake of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey decision to retire its circus elephants by 2018 and Sea World's announcement that it will double the size of its whale pens, many observers say a deep-seated shift in public attitudes toward animals is underway - and having an impact.

From the circus to the grocery store, Americans are increasingly using their wallets to protest what they view as unfair treatment of animals. The heightened consumer pressure comes amid a shift in understanding among scientists and the general public about animals' level of consciousness.

"There is a sea change going on in our culture about animals and we are coming to recognize the profound depth of animal emotion and thinking and suffering," says Barbara King, anthropology professor at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and author of "How Animals Grieve."

While these recent changes in the treatment of animals for entertainment purposes are due in part to public activism by such advocacy groups as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and others, the growing body of scientific research on animal intelligence has been crucially important, says Professor King. "The science and activism are beginning to come together to support changes," she says.

King points to such important scientific milestones as the July 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. An international consortium of scientists affirmed support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the same degree as humans. The list includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus.

"This research is beginning to trickle down into the public awareness and driving public outcry," says King, adding that this includes protests about the treatment of animals in entertainment such as the circus, film, and television, as well as the use of animals for food and clothing.

Societal attitudes towards animals are changing across the board, agrees Sarah Cunningham, a professor in the Captive Wildlife Care and Education program at Unity College in Maine. Ironically, though, she points out that "part of the reason they are changing is because we've learned so much about the cognitive abilities and social lives of other species from individuals that we work with and study in captivity."

Ringling Bros. management noted that change in its explanations for the decision. "There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," said Alana Feld, executive vice president for Feld Entertainment, the circus's parent company, in widely published comments about the decision. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."

Part of the shifting mood is "a growing reluctance to support the cruelty involved in using elephants for entertainment purposes," says Lori Gruen, professor of philosophy and coordinator of Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University in an e-mail.

"There is also a growing public aversion to the indignity and coercion of displaying these magnificent, endangered creatures as silly spectacles," she adds.

This change in public attitude can also be seen in protests against using chimpanzees in Super Bowl commercials and movies, for example, notes Professor Gruen, adding that increasingly "people are reflecting on our relationships with other animals and realizing that these relationships usually are not good ones. As a result of this recognition, people are empathizing more with the plight of those animals," she adds.

Some 25 percent of Americans say animals deserve the same rights as humans, while almost all of the rest agree that animals should be given some protection from harm and exploitation, according to Gallup's Values and Beliefs survey in 2008 - the last time the pollster posed the question. …

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