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By Andrea Peyser
January 20, 2017
He’s a seventh-generation circus performer in a creepy clown suit. You might call Bello Nock royalty. Big-top royalty.
But when I reached out to the death-defying daredevil, I confronted an angry clown — “sad beyond belief, upset and confused,’’ he told me.
Bello, 47, who rocks a signature red hairdo that stands up straight atop his head, spent years as a headliner at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, delighting children and thrilling adults with his insane acrobatics. But the sudden decision this week of circus owners to close The Greatest Show on Earth after 146 years is leaving a hole in the entertainment industry. And it is throwing performers out of work while handing an undeserved victory to animal-rights fanatics — the kinds of people I see as gluttons for publicity and power, not motivated by helping well-cared-for beasts.
Bello thinks they’re just plain wrong.
“I never saw any animal abuse. I never saw one incident of mistreatment,’’ he said. “None. Zero.
“If I did, I would be the first whistleblower. People listen to a small minority with a loud voice,’’ said Bello. ”That is a scary place in this world.’’
It’s like Mayor de Blasio’s (so far unsuccessful) quest to get rid of New York City’s horse-drawn carriages, or the decision to phase out killer-whale shows at SeaWorld — on steroids. A small knot of activists fighting against the display of big cats, elephants and all manner of critter unfairly labels the folks who train and care for them as torturers.
Worse, separating audiences from exotic animals could lead to the beasts’ destruction. “Eight elephants can educate and save the lives of 800 elephants in the wild,’’ said Bello. You might say the circus is being PETAed out of existence.
Kenneth Feld, Ringling’s CEO, whose father bought the circus in 1967, blamed its shuttering, scheduled for May, on factors that included high overhead and changing tastes, which led to a decade of declining attendance. He also noted the difficulty of removing young eyeballs from electronic devices long enough to take in a 12-minute tiger act.
But the final nail in the coffin arrived last year, after Feld Entertainment Ringling pink-slipped its elephants to appease critics, and sent the iconic pachyderms into retirement in Florida. Never again would a chain of gentle giants walk through the Midtown Tunnel en route to Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York City. Never again would Ringling travel across America with three-ring shows.
The elephants’ departure led to a “dramatic drop’’ in ticket sales everywhere, said Juliette Feld, chief operating officer of Feld Entertainment and Kenneth Feld’s daughter. It seems many folks don’t want the circus to be Dumbo-less, after all.
In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in legal settlements from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year battle over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants. They didn’t. But the damage was done.
Facing the prospect of further legal fights with well-funded animal-rights types, who should focus their efforts on stopping the everyday abuse of dogs, cats, rabbits and other domestic creatures, the Feld family folded its tent.
Misguided celebrities were overjoyed. Pamela Anderson issued a gloating tweet celebrating the end of what the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls “the saddest show on earth for wild animals.’’
There were no celebrations in my household.
I’ve taken my daughter, now a teen, to one circus or another each year since she was a tot. The rich experiences brought me back to my own childhood, when my parents would bundle my sister and me into the subway for the journey from Queens to Midtown Manhattan for some family bonding amid Ringling’s majestic living things.
As for Bello, whose 20-year-old daughter is his family’s eighth-generation circus performer, he said he hopes to reboot and revive the New York-based Big Apple Circus, which shut down last year amid financial difficulties. Big Apple showed horses and ponies rather than lions and bears, but Bello said he might go the route of Cirque du Soleil, and kiss the animals goodbye. Well, most of them.
“I may keep the dogs. Everyone likes dogs.’’
RIP Ringling Brothers. A tragic loss.