At Oakland Zoo we pride ourselves on the “protected contact” system of care for our four resident African Elephants. This system is based on positive reinforcement and prevents the need for keeper domination through barbaric tools such as the bullhook. Each year we host “Celebrating Elephants” to benefit the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, and at this event we encourage people not to attend “free contact” elephant programs such as amusement parks where elephant rides are given and circus shows featuring elephants and other animals.
Well, I figured it was time for me to put my money where my mouth is. This last Friday our longtime volunteer Cheryl Matthews, my sister Chelsea, and I decided to boycott the local circus show at the Oracle Arena in Oakland. There was a group meeting there and the directions were pretty clear: Just Show Up.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve never been to the circus before – as a protestor or a patron – so I wasn’t sure how exactly we were to go about protesting. I’m not a very confrontational person and the idea of yelling into a megaphone or accusing people of wrongdoing didn’t exactly appeal to me.
Luckily this group is about educating people through peaceful means, not aggressively. Signs were provided for all of us and we were given flyers in both English and Spanish to offer to people as they walked by. Each of us was instructed to be polite, and to try to be as friendly as possible despite potentially negative reactions.
Truth be told, there were far less ‘angry’ people than I thought there would be. Many people refused our fliers and seemed irritated at being offered them, but no one was rude. Many people also took them on their way in. And holding signs is an attention-grabbing mode of spreading the message as well. There was an Oakland A’s game that night at the Coliseum and far more people were headed to that venue than to the circus. There were also encouraging people like the man who told my sister what a good job she was doing and that even if people don’t take the flier, they are listening, we are still a presence.
My hope is that for everyone that took a flier on their way into the show, they’ll at least give that flier a look. Maybe they were unwilling to tear up their tickets or turn around and drive home, but maybe that flier, and our message will make them think twice the next time the circus comes to town. And maybe if we’re really lucky, there won’t be a next time.