ringling brothers and barnum & bailey circus

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See you down the road, Barnum and Bailey

The Circus Leaves Town
Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, say goodbye to the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. - Written by Jessica Lussenhop

The air inside of a 25 foot cannon is hot and smells like metal. It’s dark and loud, and the moments before a launch - even for an experienced human cannonball like 32-year-old “Nitro” Nicole Sanders - are filled with real fear.  

“There’s no feeling comfortable with it,” she says.  

The cannonball act is deceptively simple: a cannon large enough to fit a human inside its bore “shoots” an acrobat high into the air, and she lands in a net or an airbag. The mechanics of the cannon are a closely guarded secret, but it works with a combination of hydraulics and air pressure - there’s no gunpowder. The only explosion comes from some fireworks lit for show.  

The flight of the human cannonball at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is over in just under three seconds, but the preparation takes days.  

It’s up to the human cannonball to control her flight, to use her muscles in order to fly properly, to tumble safely, and land without injuring herself. Any mistake - if the cannon isn’t warmed up enough or Sanders’ footing is off - can cause a bad flight and an even worse landing. 

A 14-year-old girl named Zazel was the first to be shot out of a cannon, in 1877 London. In the 140 years since, the act’s safety has been vastly improved but never perfected. One circus historian estimated that 30 human cannonballs have died in performance accidents. The most recent death occurred in 2011.  

Like Zazel, Sanders is an acrobat and an aerialist by training. She is terrifically fit - each muscle must be pulled taut for the moment of launch. She can’t gain or lose too much weight, or else risk throwing off the cannon maker’s calculations with potentially disastrous results.  

On 7 May, in a downtown arena in Providence, Rhode Island, Sanders rides into the centre of the floor atop the bright red and gold cannon. In her civilian life she is tattooed and favours an all-black wardrobe, but in the show she’s dressed head to toe in a glittery silver jumpsuit. She grins and high-kicks and flourishes with her arms towards the sold-out crowd.  

As soon as she slides down into the mouth of the cannon, the smile drops.  

Sanders pulls into herself tightly and calls out to her shooter, Boris, that she’s ready.  

The ringmaster counts down from five, and with the cracking sound of fireworks, Sanders is launched high in the air, cresting at 40-feet and travelling roughly 66 miles per hour at a G-force of about seven, which is enough to knock out a fighter pilot in flight.  

She throws out her arms like wings, releasing two fistfuls of glitter.  

She turns in mid-air, touches her fingertips to her toes, then falls on her back into the airbag. This is when the adrenaline hits, as the crowd roars its approval.  

Just like she’d envisioned, everything goes perfectly. It is her 596th shot.  

It may also be her last.  

After 146 years, these are the final performances of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, an American institution that was slowly brought to its knees by a combination of evolving cultural tastes, bad luck and political enemies that left it no longer financially viable for its parent company, Feld Entertainment.  

So, in addition to ignoring the 104-foot expanse of floor between the cannon mouth and the airbag, Sanders has had to force herself to stop thinking about the fact that she’s facing unemployment, the loss of her home, the disbanding of her tight-knit circus family, and the end of her dream job.  

Read On

L.A. bans painful tools used to train elephants!

Infuriating still from Peta’s “Elephants in Circuses: Training & Tragedy”

On Wednesday, Los Angeles sided with the elephants when the city council banned the use of “bullhooks, pitchforks, baseball bats and other goads that circus trainers use to control elephants and other exotic animals.”*

First of all, “pitchforks and baseball bats”?!

Secondly, thank you, L.A. The city council’s vote was unanimous (faith in humanity momentarily restored), and the ban takes effect in January 2017, a delay “meant to give circuses time to change how they handle elephants or remove them from the shows.” (You know which choice I’m rooting for.)

Naturally Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spokesman Stephen Payne (insert snide remark about how much pain elephants are caused by this abuse), was pissed, and said the law was “completely unnecessary.” He went on to say that this new ban “would force the cancellation of Los Angeles circus events” (excellent!) and City News Service quoted him as saying that the circus may move to a venue outside the city limits. (I see a PETA protest happening.)

City Councillor Paul Koretz said using bullhooks is “inhumane and unhealthy,” and that “the circus is welcome in Los Angeles, just without the bullhooks. … We’re hoping that they follow the model of other circuses that don’t use exotic animals." 

Happy day for the elephants and other "exotic animals!”