Now that Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus is eliminating their elephant acts—something that’s long overdue—I’ve been thinking about Cincinnati’s old John Robinson Circus. It was hugely famous in the 1800s and went to just about every city in the U.S. Any record of how they treated their elephants? –Mumbo Dumbo
Try finding any 19th-century circus with a reputation for admirable treatment of its humans, much less its animals. Cincinnatian John Robinson did own one of America’s most famous touring shows, the “Great World’s Exposition, Aquarium, Animal Conservatory, and Strictly Moral Circus,” but be forewarned: The elephant stories are not pretty.
Mr. Robinson’s premier elephant in the 1880s was Chief. He was famed mostly for his viciousness, the origins of which we prefer not to contemplate. When Chief wasn’t busy killing and maiming his minders, he spent his off-seasons inside Robinson’s winter compound in the West End at Poplar and Linn Streets. Even there he made national news, breaking loose in 1888 and terrorizing the corner for several hours.
Subsequent merciless beatings and even a straw bed of fire failed to improve Chief’s attitude, so Robinson decided to execute him, employing a modern method only a circus showman could dream up: electrocution! Under the Big Top! Imagine the posters: “The Greatest Show On (Carefully Grounded) Earth!” Thankfully, no electric company would agree to participate, so Chief was turned over to the Cincinnati Zoo, where the day finally came when Chief’s hardheadedness brought him before a firing squad. And another firing squad the day after that; his head really was quite hard. Chief’s final indignity: being butchered and served up as a banquet at the Palace Restaurant. This is why no elephant ever ran away to join the circus.
The horses that pull the carriages around Fountain Square are kept in a facility at Linn and Poplar Streets in the West End, right beside residential buildings. Conditions on the outside look and smell pretty bad, and I shudder to think what’s inside. Is this legal? Could I find a multi-horse stable on my own street? —Whoa Nellie
Whoa! The very same West End corner where the 19th-century elephant rampage described above took place! It turns out that large animals have resided within the perimeter of Poplar, Linn, Livingston, and John Streets for much of Cincinnati’s history. John Robinson’s circus menagerie wintered there from roughly the Civil War to about 1900; companies like Kahn’s Meats moved in next, herding millions of animals into slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities well into the 20th century. Today’s horses should be thankful that Alpo never signed a lease.
Perhaps this history explains why, at the end of a long haul, our downtown carriage horses come to Poplar and Linn to kick off their shoes and chill, and why Cincinnati’s Health and Zoning Departments have a longstanding semi-official exemption for this area. The agreement includes the owner’s obligation to remove, daily, all equine residents’ perpetual surprises. How diligently this chore is performed is open to (nasal) debate. Occasional complaints have resulted in heavy-equipment cleanups, although none at taxpayer expense.
Our indoor cat has an outdoor friend, a tabby from a neighbor’s house. He often comes to our window and hangs out. But recently another neighbor decided that the tabby’s outdoor life was too dangerous, and simply took him in and won’t let him out. The tabby’s owners are upset but don’t think they have any legal recourse. Do they? Does Hamilton County register cats as property?—Garfield Grabbed
Welcome to the Doctor’s first all-animal column. Also his first disclaimer about the foolishness of acting on any of his legal advice.
Hamilton County does not register cats, but many pets now receive surgically implanted microchips that easily link them to their home address. Whether or not your neighborhood’s abducted tabby has such a device, its legal clout for this situation seems cloudy at best. Calls to the SPCA and animal shelters failed to turn up any definitive answers, and the Sycamore Township Police (where you live) were justifiably reluctant to commit valuable time conducting an investigation, especially for a party not directly aggrieved. Your cat’s loss of companionship may give him more legal standing if he makes the call.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue.