The 76th annual El Riad Shrine Circus has hit town once again, running Thursday through Sunday at the Sioux Falls Arena.
The spectacle has been a source of family entertainment for decades. But the recent closing of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus and concerns over animal treatment have led to a nagging question: Is the circus still relevant?
Back in January, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performed its last show after 146 years in the business, citing labor costs and unionization battles as the main reason for the tradition’s demise.
In spite of that downward trend, the El Riad Shrine Circus has been thriving, according to local circus committee member Reid Jensen.
“We’ve seen our attendance continue to grow, year over year,” said Jensen. The circus has been so successful that the El Riad Shriners are even considering adding more show times in the next few years.
Many in Sioux Falls still think of the event fondly, including Donald Eastman, who has attended the circus for as long as he can remember and says “its gotten better every year.”
Not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Sara Baumgartner of Sioux Falls loves the Shriners organization and the work they do through children’s hospitals, but she strongly opposes their use of animals.
“These animals live a life of daily torture and abuse,” said Baumgartner, who is refusing to bring her family to the circus this year. In a letter to the Argus Leader, she claimed the Shrine circus has repeatedly received animal welfare violations and mentions it placing seventh on PETA’s list of the worst circuses in the world.
The Shriners tell a different tale. “Community support remains incredibly high for what the circus brings. We have absolutely no concerns about what the future may hold for some of our exotic animal exhibits,” said Jensen. “These animals are extremely well cared for and have all the creature comforts they could ever want.”
The debate rages on in society over whether animals should be used for this type of entertainment, even if they are treated fairly. Last May, several months before shutting down, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus succumbed to outside pressure and retired their signature elephants.
If the Shrine Circus retired its animals and only had human acts, would that mean the end to its appeal? Baumgartner suggests it would not. She encouraged the circus to go animal free and shift toward a show more like the Montreal-based Cirque Du Soleil, which has seen success in recent years.
“We are always open and receptive to change,” said Jensen. “We bring the community what it asks for. We are willing to grow as the community dictates.”
In Sioux Falls, at least, it would appear there remains an appetite for entertainment involving elephants, tigers and camels.
The circus this year will not only feature its usual domestic and exotic animals but also crowd favorites such as the motorcycle stunt The Globe of Death and new acts such as The Amazing Spider Man.
So, despite the closing of several national circuses and the controversy over animal acts, the El Riad Shrine Circus continues to be a source of family fun in Sioux Falls. And it remains a fantastic fundraiser for the Shriner organizations and its charities.
IF YOU GO
What: El Riad Shrine Circus
When/where: Thursday April 20-Sunday April 23 at the Arena
Tickets: General Admission $10, reserved seating available
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