Anna Pippus is a Vancouver-based lawyer and director for Animal Justice
Not that long ago, humans marvelled at our superior and singular ability to control the natural world. The enormous, exotic elephant standing on his head at a circus was a grand display of human triumph over powerful animals.
Today, we know better. We see the humiliation of a majestic, intelligent creature. We imagine the suffering the animal endured to be cowed into performing tricks. We question whether causing harm to animals can be justified for the sake of our fleeting entertainment.
Elephants exited the Ringling Bros. circus ring for the last time this week. It is a long overdue end to an era of viewing animals as entertainment.
We have entered the age of empathy, when delighting in proximity to exotic animals without regard to their well-being is a social faux pas. Just ask Justin Bieber, who posed with a leashed tiger rented out as a prop to thrill guests at his father's fancy engagement party on Saturday.
The fast and furious international headlines that followed should surprise nobody who has been even peripherally paying attention to the momentum the animal-rights movement is gaining. Sure, the Biebs has become an unfortunate easy target for ridicule. But even still, the average member of the public now feels disgust, not delight, at arrogant displays of triumph over exotic animals.
It's no coincidence that international outrage follows those who adore exotic animal trophy hunting – perhaps the most obvious, outdated example of throwing away an animal's life for human enjoyment. The lines in the sand have been drawn: Those who continue to advocate for trophy hunting (ahem, Donald Trump) will become more out of touch with public opinion – and those who condemn it will be applauded (See: Ricky Gervais).
This shift in the way we view animals is part of a larger trend: Instead of thinking of animals strictly as commodities, we're starting to weigh the benefits to ourselves against the effects on the animals.
Although this balancing of animal costs against human gains has a solid foundation in our case law dating back at least to the 1970s, our shifting views about animals is happening too rapidly for our legislators to keep up. It's no longer enough to say that animals are treated in compliance with the law, because our animal laws and law enforcement are no longer adequate.
In the absence of laws that reflect social values, relatively more nimble businesses have to adapt to stay competitive. Feld Entertainment, the parent company behind Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, isn't retiring elephants because it acknowledges the harm it's caused to animals. On the contrary, right up to the final bow this weekend, it continued to insist its elephants are happy and healthy. (In fact, it's not even retiring them to a sanctuary, but to a research centre.)
No, the company saw the writing on the wall and grudgingly gave in to pressure from the consumer: Society has evolved, with the masses agreeing these beautiful animals cannot be used for human entertainment.
It makes sense that circus elephants are one of the first to go. We know elephants are intelligent, and circuses are amongst the most trivial of our uses of animals.
We can expect to see more species and more animal uses coming under scrutiny. While governments and courts scramble to keep up, businesses need to be proactive in addressing animal protection in their corporate social responsibility strategies – or risk becoming obsolete.