BOOK REVIEW: The Rose-tinted Menagerie

The Rose-tinted Menagerie

THE ROSE-TINTED MENAGERIE is a surprisingly comprehensive history of the use of animals in entertainment. The modern circus traces its genealogy to the sordid and brutal shows of the Roman empire, the author writes. We all know about the gladiator battles and the mass slaughter of animals that occurred on Roman soil, which both entertained the public and showcased the might of the Romans over the rest of the natural world.

“Some of the beasts…rather than being butchered immediately, would be trained to perform tricks, and it is interesting to note that most of these were specifically designed to ridicule and degrade the animal.”

the text notes, setting a clear precedent for the circus entertainment empires to follow. We also learn the origin of the traditional circus parade: before the show began, the Romans marched around the circus amphitheatre, displaying unusual animals and human performers.

By the 1800s, religious Puritans almost destroyed the circus. They saw the sideshows, with their conjurers, magicians, and such as being an extension of devilry and witchcraft. In order to save themselves, circus promoters began to present the industry as “educational.” The author writes, “ambitious entrepreneurs…were convinced that by introducing exotic animals, the whole caboodle could be passed off as ‘educational.’” They often threw in recreated Biblical scenes, too, for good measure. To this day, even the most pathetic traveling animal shows and petting pens make staunch claims of their educational value.

And then, of course, there are the dolphins, those beloved clowns of the sea who have been captured and slaughtered innumerably ever since humans decided they were entertaining.

The movie and TV series “Flipper,”–which was, ironically, about a wild dolphin who befriended a young boy—sparked a craze for captive, performing dolphins and other cetaceans. Stated a former dolphin catcher who worked in South Africa during the boom years:

“After the Marine Mammal Act came into force in 1972 it became more difficult – you couldn’t buy dolphins anymore, you know, like sausages. Before ’72 you could go to the States and buy any dolphins you wanted to.”

We will probably never know how many dolphins died during capture, transport or shortly after being taken into captivity in these years.

The Oscar-winning movie The Cove brought the facts about dolphin slaughter in Japan to an international audience. The fishermen herd whole pods of dolphins into a secluded cove, choose a few cosmetically appealing animals for sale to marine aquariums, and stab to death the rest, turning the sea bright red. It’s a big business, and the international dolphin dealers prop it up with the big bucks they’re willing to pay for a “show quality” animal. Today, most marine parks don’t want to have anything to do with these “blood dolphins.” But not so long ago, dolphinariums once bragged about buying dolphins out of drive fisheries.

“Three years ago, Terry bought Sooty out of Japan, and at that time the Japanese fishermen were slaughtering the dolphins and if Sooty had not been rescued and brought into captivity, she would have been eaten as dolphin meat,”

the text quotes. Is it really so benevolent when you’re paying thousands of dollars to the folks who most likely stabbed Sooty’s friends, parents, mate, and calf to death right in front of her?

Yet, some dolphinariums maintain they’re doing the dolphins a favor by capturing them from the ocean. One trainer told the author –

“When I get a wild dolphin the eyes are blank, dull, far away, but when you start to work with them, you can see how their eyes open up, how they watch you, become bright and clever.”

Paging Marjorie Spiegel…

Through this book I learned for the first time, about vivisection experiments conducted on dolphins, often in military labs but occasionally in dolphinariums themselves. Research has long been a convenient dumping ground for animal entertainers. The author notes that in 1984, Ringling Bros. shipped four chimps to White Sands Research Center after the death of their trainer. Invasive studies were once done on captive dolphins, sinking electrodes into their brains to study sonar. NATO funded some of the experiments, which occurred in sites across the globe—including in the US. Are experiments like this still being done? Probably, but I doubt we will ever find out, since the thought of such a beloved species being vivisected would no doubt produce an outcry the researchers would rather not deal with.

(review originally appeared at


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