How P.T. Barnum Helped the Early Days of Animal Rights

The circus founder played a small, peculiar role in the nascent activist movement—one that would later cheer the end of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

A circus poster from 1897
A circus poster from 1897 (Library of Congress)

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will put on its last show this month, after more than 140 years in performance. Many factors led to the demise of the so-called “Greatest Show on Earth”—growing costs, shrinking attention spans, the rise of other forms of entertainment, the effect of local transport legislation on a show that still rides the rails. But one of the loudest arguments in recent memory concerned the show’s animal performers, which came to appear more retrograde than entertaining thanks to an evolving dialogue on animal rights. Following a damning 2011 Mother Jones investigative report and ugly multi-year litigation over elephant care, the circus’s parent company Feld Entertainment retired its use of elephants at a performance last May.

The showman P.T. Barnum, who died in 1891, takes a lot of heat as the original architect of the circus; he’s ostensibly the man who created callous demand for performing tigers and dancing elephants in the first place. Though there’s truth to this view, a look at Barnum’s career also reveals his surprising involvement with a movement that would, over a century later, cheer the end of his circus. Through his unlikely friendship with the prominent early animal-rights activist Henry Bergh in the late 1800s, Barnum found himself in the thick of the debate over the care and feeding of Victorian animal entertainers. In fact, the animal-rights movement might not have survived to exist in its modern form and breadth if not for the media exposure Barnum lent it in its fragile infancy.

Bergh, the previously idle son of a wealthy New York shipping family, founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1866. Catalyzed by raucous bullfights and the ill treatment of carriage horses he witnessed as he traveled through Europe, Bergh traded early retirement for a life of activism. He was easily recognizable as he strode around Manhattan looking to intervene in instances of animal abuse. If you were walking a city street in the 1860s and happened to see a tall, lanky gentleman with a giant, drooping mustache, standing in the intersection and hollering at overloaded streetcars to pull over—that was Henry Bergh.

One of Bergh’s first public squabbles was with Barnum, whose two American Museums predated his circus ventures by decades, and were the most well-known public attractions in 19th-century New York. Live animals were among the museums’ biggest draws. Barnum featured the nation’s first public aquarium, with sea lions and beluga whales; an unprecedented hippopotamus; assorted birds and beasts; even the famed mountain man John “Grizzly” Adams frolicking with enormous bears on the top floor. The museums were wildly popular and made Barnum a global celebrity well before he entered the circus business.

In 1866, after a complaint that Barnum’s staff fed the resident boa constrictor a diet of live rabbits, the newly minted activist Bergh introduced himself to Barnum with the threat of legal action. He called on museum staff personally, hoping to put an end to what he called the “semi-barbarian” practice of feeding snakes live prey before the paying public. If the snakes can’t eat anything else, Bergh urged, in a letter to Barnum, “then let them starve—for, it is contrary to the merciful providence of God that wrong should be committed in order to accomplish a supposed right.”

Thanks to his menageries, Barnum had more hands-on experience with exotic animals than many scientists of the era (even if he did go through them at a faster-than-ideal rate), and maintained a solid reputation among zoologists. Seeing no issue with the snake’s diet, Barnum replied to Bergh with the concurring opinion of the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, an ASPCA supporter who confirmed that snakes habitually ate live food, and would in fact turn up their scaly noses at a dead meal. Barnum insisted that the American Museum would “continue to feed all its animals in accordance with the laws of nature,” and warned Bergh about being too credulous or self-righteous, particularly in public discourse: “This entire story of the trembling, fearful rabbit is a shallow hoax,” Barnum wrote, adding: “In attempting to prevent the abuse of beasts your influence will not be increased by your abuse of men.”

Chastened but not dissuaded, Bergh continued his work. Granted enforcement powers under New York’s landmark animal-rights law, Bergh lobbied for the humane treatment of livestock, opposed dog- and cockfighting, and advocated for animal care during an 1872 epizootic that devastated horses and therefore debilitated a society that needed them for labor, transportation, and commerce. (Bergh also invented the clay pigeon, to spare live birds from mutilation by bored sport shooters.)

Though Bergh’s remarkable efforts enjoyed the sort of elite political and philanthropic support that nurtured many of the era’s moral movements, he was slow to build broad public backing. In the 19th century, animals were generally regarded as chattel, not as sentient beings with rights, and what an owner chose to do in private was his business. And so as Bergh patrolled the city to root out abuse, most workaday people did not see a noble humanitarian so much as a nosy aristocrat.

In 1880, Barnum—who had continued to correspond with Bergh on everything from habitat fire safety to bullhooks used to train elephants, always with a justification at the ready—gently confided to Bergh that the activist had an image problem: “Your name and memory will rightfully be honored and revered through coming ages,” Barnum wrote in a letter. “But, my dear sir, you are human and sometimes err. You sometimes abuse the power the Legislature has placed in your hands, by perhaps unwittingly using it as a despot, and thereby injuring the good cause you desire to benefit.” In short, Barnum encouraged the man reporters had dubbed “the great meddler” to work on his brand as a do-gooder.

Both men knew how much one’s public persona mattered. The rise of the penny press in the 19th century had created the concept of mass media: No longer plain stenographers, papers suddenly cared about advertising revenue, public taste, and audience share and opinion. Barnum used this knowledge to promote not only his many business ventures (and the occasional fake mermaid) but also the causes he held dear—among them temperance advocacy and Universalism, a school of Christian faith that traded traditional New England fire and brimstone for the belief that everyone would be saved. While both men eagerly used the print media, Bergh would have rather been right than popular; and Barnum knew that if you weren’t popular, you wouldn’t get the chance to be right—or, better yet, profitable. If Barnum’s words could not convince Bergh of the value of public buy-in, spectacle would have to substitute.

An 1898 poster for one of Barnum & Bailey’s flaming-hoop acts (Library of Congress)

Barnum had come out of semi-retirement in the 1870s to build the circus that still bears his name. His spring show in 1880 featured the stallion Salamander, who thrilled crowds by jumping through a series of flaming hoops. Notwithstanding a then-cordial acquaintance with Barnum, Bergh protested the performance following a report that, after a hoop had slipped, the horse finished its act one night with its mane and tail appearing to be on fire. Through his manager George Bailey, Barnum explained that the flames were chemically created showpieces that posed no danger to man or beast. He even invited Bergh to a repeat performance to see for himself. Bergh declined, and in his stead sent the superintendent of the ASPCA, a clutch of animal-welfare officers, and 20 New York policemen, who sternly stationed themselves around the ring as 4,000 spectators took their seats.

At the close of a bareback-riding routine, Barnum himself entered the arena to roaring applause. He calmed the crowd and announced that though he realized he might end the day under arrest, “Mr. Bergh or I must run this show.” The hoops were set ablaze as the “fire-horse” was led into the ring by his trainer. Barnum grabbed his hat and stuck his hand into the flames. Seventy years old but spirited, the entertainer stepped through the fiery hoop, and in short order he was followed by 10 clowns, Salamander and, at Barnum’s invitation, Superintendent Hartfield of the ASPCA. Satisfied on the point of the horse’s safety, Hartfield and a delighted audience called victory for the entertainer.

Reflecting on the performance in his autobiography, Barnum refused to crush Bergh or his agenda in that moment: “Although I was forced to resent his ill-advised interference, this episode did not impair my personal regard for Mr. Bergh and my admiration of his noble works.” Perhaps the most notable legacy of Bergh and Barnum is that despite—or perhaps because of—their public sparring, the two men developed a warm and knowing friendship that elevated the profile of animal-rights advocacy at a key historical moment.

The two were chummy to mutual benefit: Bergh stocked the ASPCA library with copies of Barnum’s autobiography, and Barnum cheerily referred to himself as the “Bergh of Bridgeport” in his work on the board of the local SPCA chapter. (Barnum was the city’s mayor and lived much of his life there.) Thanks in large part to Barnum’s celebrity and the visibility it afforded the animal-rights cause, a public shift was demonstrable. The New York Tribune, which in 1874 had rolled its eyes at Bergh with the admonition that “Christ selected his apostles from a class of men whom Mr. Bergh would have prosecuted for torturing and slaying fish,” later changed its tune on Bergh’s excesses. An 1888 edition claimed: “In any large view of the subject, these ought to be soon lost to sight. The good results of his mission are almost incalculable.”

In his later years, it was clear Bergh had taken his media training to heart. In a typically plainspoken letter to Barnum, he asked: Will your estate provide for the animals whose labor has made your fame and fortune? Barnum obliged, writing sizable donations to humane organizations into his will—and for good measure, he added a bequest to the city of Bridgeport to erect a statue of Bergh. A monument in Bergh’s honor, topped with a prancing horse, was placed in Bridgeport’s Seaside Park in 1897 and stands today.

As the circus performs its last shows this month, it’s worth remembering that Barnum, for all his flaws, believed that his role was not simply to read the public taste and provide corresponding entertainment, but also to work toward the moral improvement of society (so much as the plan fit a certain white, affluent, Christian version of things). Unlike Bergh, who loved service for its own sake, Barnum openly preferred wealth through service. And he was happy to elevate a resonant social cause so long as the tide also carried his own boat. Indeed, had he been alive, Barnum may have even encouraged the elephants’ final bow: For as much as he valued his animal performers and their role in his success, if there were a time when they went so far against public opinion as to be unmarketable, he’d have been behind the final curtain, cooking up the next big thing.