Love the Circus? You Should Know About These Big Problems Under the Big Top

As seven acrobats injured in a horrifying accident prepare a lawsuit, we’re left wondering how safe the circus is for humans and animals.

Emergency personnel attend to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performers in Providence, R.I. who were injured when the scaffolding they were performing on collapsed. (Photo: Reuters)

Jun 19, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

When eight Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performers were seriously injured in a 35-foot fall during a “Human Chandelier” performance in Providence, R.I., in May, the incident shocked circus fans and critics worldwide. Now the troupe of “hair hangers” is stunning people again, this time with its incredible recovery.

In a press conference this week at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, four of the performers tearfully detailed the rehabilitation from their injuries, including paralysis and multiple fractures. At the press conference, a Chicago-based law firm announced that seven of the performers had hired the firm to file a lawsuit on their behalf. The eighth performer has retained separate legal counsel.

It’s not yet clear who will be named in the suit, though the Department of Public Safety for the city of Providence has stated that Ringling Bros. was responsible for all setup and rigging of the show. Investigators have pointed to a snapped carabiner, a metal loop designed to hold thousands of pounds of weight, as a possible cause of the accident.

The impending legal dispute is just the latest plaguing an industry with a long record of accidents. It’s also left audiences second-guessing the ethics behind marketing a death-defying form of entertainment to children.

Despite the attention they garner, critical injuries in performance accidents are relatively rare in the history of the circus, said Janet M. Davis, professor of American studies at the University of Texas. She’s the author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top and a forthcoming book about the history of animal welfare in the U.S. “The people who were typically the most endangered at circuses in the 19th and 20th centuries were the people who work behind the scenes, pulling wagons off railroad cars and setting up tents,” Davis said.

When performance injuries occur, they’re often disturbingly violent. Ringling Bros. is no stranger to them: In 2004, acrobat Dessi Espana plummeted 30 feet to her death when a mechanism holding the silk scarves she used in her aerial act malfunctioned. Last June, Cirque du Soleil artist Sarah Guillot-Guyard fell 94 feet to her death when a wire rope that suspended her was severed.

Aerial acts aren’t the only ones endangering performers. In February, a Colombian motorcycle stuntman was critically injured and placed in a medically induced coma after losing control of his bike and crashing into a wall at a Shrine Circus event in Virginia.

Circuses, like other workplaces in the U.S., are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA and state investigators are tasked with examining evidence and determining whether an incident violated laws that require equipment to protect performers. OSHA, however, may decline to investigate circus accidents, citing risks inherent in the acts, as was the case with Espana’s fatal accident.

Because of the hazardous nature of high-flying performances, many independent contractors essentially sign away their lives to participate. Smaller circuses sidestep some responsibility by requiring performers to sign waivers of liability and assumption of risk. These agreements can easily be challenged in court, but troupes know it’s in their best interest to minimize ownership of assets in the event the court rules against them. As Allison Williams, the artistic director of Aerial Angels in Kalamazoo, Mich., said to Inc. magazine, "The biggest defense we as small business owners have is that we don't own anything worth taking." Other troupes insulate themselves somewhat by requiring performers to buy performer insurance. The out-of-pocket premiums for individuals range from about $200 to more than $2,000 annually, depending on the extent of coverage for bodily injury and property damage.

Even with the financial safety net of insurance, international performers such as the women involved in the May Ringling Bros. accident have a lot to lose when injured. Foreign workers may have a harder time collecting workers' compensation or waging lawsuits than domestic workers. If the accident has left them unable to work, they can lose their travel visas and be forced to return to their home country. “When the majority of performers today are from other countries, there are concerns with performers’ and handlers’ legal rights in this country that are very salient,” Davis said.

At least U.S.-based performers can choose whether or not to participate in their profession. In a despicable practice, for decades Nepalese children have been sold into forced labor in Indian circuses. Then there are those who have no voice at all: the approximately 300 wild animals that currently travel the U.S. in circuses, according to Animal Defenders International. American circuses have been dogged by complaints of animal abuse and inhumane living conditions and confinement. These incidents, many of which are cataloged by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, take their toll on the animal performers, often leading to escapes and attacks that present a public safety risk.

What are conflicted circus lovers to do? Read up on a troupe’s labor practices before you buy tickets. If you oppose the use of animals in circuses, lobby your local politicians to restrict the practice in your community. In the U.S., 46 municipalities in 21 states have enacted partial or full bans on the use of circus animals, according to Born Free USA. You can also ask your congressperson to support the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act. Championed by Congressman Jim Moran, D-Va., H.R. 4525 aims to restrict the use of exotic, non-domestic animals in circuses. It was referred to congressional committee at the end of April.

Curbing performances that are perilous to humans may be a far more difficult feat. “This elemental risk is something that a lot of circus people feel very strongly about as a signature of their artistic integrity,” Davis said. But many circuses are offsetting their death-defying feats with positive social change in their communities. Cirque du Soleil works with at-risk youths worldwide, while smaller circuses like Circus Harmony in St. Louis build community in low-income areas. And those Nepalese kids trafficked into Indian circuses? They’re reclaiming their agency with their very own circus.

The social element is a long-standing circus tradition ever since people ran away to join big top troupes in the 19th century. “It’s always been a place for people who don’t have a place in society,” said Davis. She points to big-hearted examples like Wayne Franzen, a Florida circus owner well-known in his community for hiring ex-convicts in the ’80s and ’90s because he believed everyone deserved a second chance. Just don’t focus on his untimely end. Franzen was mauled to death by one of his tigers while an audience of children looked on.