World Circus Day falls in April. The concept of a circus appears to have begun in ancient Rome, in seated arenas where spectators viewed various types of sports and games. Traditional circuses of more modern times were often traveling shows that included performances with clowns, acrobats, and trained animals.
In my small town, a dilapidated circus caravan arrived each summer and set up tents in the ball fields near the local school. As a kid, a visit to the circus filled me with a mix of excitement and dread. I looked forward to the fruit-flavored snow cones Mom and Dad promised when the show ended. I always hoped that would be the year I could buy a too-expensive, feathered Kewpie doll from the vendors. The trapeze artists and tightrope walkers showed off amazing skills. But what if they fell? I wasn’t fearful of clowns, but the ones made up to look sad concerned me.
The worst part was the poor animals. Sometimes we saw them, pacing in their small cages, between shows. The view across a field often included elephants with legs chained to metal stakes in the ground.
I clearly remember the summer when I was about eight years old. I sat under the hot circus tent with my family, listening to the applause from the crowd directed at little dogs riding tricycles. A trio of huge elephants then lumbered into the ring. The trainers put them through their paces to the sound of music, but one of the giants didn’t comply. A circus worker wielded a hooked pole. He jabbed at the elephant with the stick that seemed as though it could tear the animal’s papery ears. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run. Trainers finally led the elephants from the tent, and I was glad it was over.
Later that afternoon, a neighbor told us that circus workers had walked the elephants to the nearby creek for a drink. The animals escaped up the other side! A mix of fear and relief washed over me. The elephants were free! But what if they walked down our street and bumped into our house? I waited nervously, wondering what would happen. My parents assured me the circus workers would find the elephants. Was that what I wanted?
In the evening, we learned the elephants had walked through my grandmother’s garden! She was away from the house, but neighbors spotted them. When Grandma returned, she found footprints and smashed vines in her garden as proof!
That same week, a little dog wandered the sidewalk of a house across the street. The family took it in as their own and discovered the animal was eager and willing to do a variety of tricks. They named her “Trixie” and always believed she was an escapee from that same circus.
Thankfully, the use of animal acts for entertainment in circuses has now decreased, and that type of exploitation in many countries is now almost non-existent. In 2016, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival highlighted five major circus disciplines: acrobatics, aerial skills, equilibristics, object manipulation, and clowning. It also showcased the occupational culture of circus artists but didn’t involve exotic animals. That was a wonderful step in the right direction! In fact, numerous circuses that have been around for years are now closing. Other circuses have evolved or begun as animal-free entertainment.
I’m pleased to say that my children’s story, “Freedom,” based on that ‘great elephant escape,’ now appears online in Smarty Pants Magazine for Kids. My alter ego, Becca, is much braver than I remember being as a child. In the fictional ending of my tale, her feelings about the imprisoned animals empower her in a humorous fashion. Hope you will enjoy reading my story, which is linked above! ~Becky