January 31, 2002 -- “Thirty million Americans a year go to circuses with animal acts,” a stony-faced Peter Jennings told his ABC News audience on December 19, 2001, “and the issue of how well or how badly circus animals are treated is a very old one.”

So began the evening news story about Mark Geble, a famous animal trainer for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus who is being charged with animal cruelty after he allegedly used a traditional elephant training tool, called an ankus, to gouge a nickel-sized puncture in an elephant’s skin. Animal rights groups are crying foul, attempting to link this incident to what they believe is a much larger problem.

For its part, the circus claims that after the animal was hosed down, the mark simply went away, suggesting that the charges are much ado about nothing. “They’re trying to drive a further agenda…a political agenda, that would remove animals from circuses,” said Catherine Ort-Mabry, a spokeswoman for Ringling Brothers. As Peter Jennings has rightly suggested, the issue of “how well or how badly” circuses are treating their animals is indeed an old one, and certainly makes for good television. But that doesn’t mean a criminal court is the proper venue for addressing such concerns.

Tens of millions of Americans go to the circus each year, and animals play a vital role in the performance. For all the controversy, it is clear from the register receipts that the training techniques of animal handlers meet with public approval. Right or wrong, people just aren’t as repulsed by these practices as some believe they should be. If, after “dozens” of animal cruelty investigations and endless hidden-camera exposés, audiences still haven’t turned against these traditional circus acts, then perhaps the issue is a dead horse that the animal rights crowd ought to stop kicking.

Another factor in desperate need of resolution in today’s culture is the issue of “animal rights” itself. Animals do not have rights. The entire concept of rights is an invention of man’s rational faculty, a moral concept that denotes the requisite conditions under which human beings must be allowed to live, if they wish to do so, according to their nature. In order for this to take place, it is often necessary that men and women use animals, like other resources around them, to accomplish their ends. This can be for food, clothing, and, yes, even entertainment.

Those who claim rights for our four-legged friends have certainly done an excellent job of persuading legislators to pass anti-cruelty laws, but they’ve done so only by exploiting people’s basic sense of kindness. After all, no one likes to see an animal mistreated. It is a far stretch, however, to equate this kind of social disapproval, which we demonstrate when someone is doing something we don’t like, with an absolute moral principle upon which criminal law is based.

Though the proverbial cat is already out of the bag, the codification of such a thing as “animal rights” could potentially lead to consequences that all but the most careless rat-lover would find dire. If merely gouging a nickel-sized hole in an elephant’s shoulder is a criminal act, then hunters should be charged with murder, road kill is manslaughter, and owning a dog is an act of involuntary servitude. These examples can easily be dismissed as absurd, but remember that once upon a time a man who didn’t feed his cows was only considered a fool.

In any debate about animals, the legitimate parameters should always be understood. Animals are property, not entities deserving of legal status. Laws are meant to protect people. If animal rights activists are unhappy with the training methods used by circuses, or even the use of animals at all, they are more than welcome to continue using public pressure to try to persuade them to change. Until then, the show must go on.

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