Interesting post, Puresnow.
I can remember, as a child, going once to see Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. It was a full three ring circus with kiosks as you entered where you could see the animals waiting in their cages. I don't think we really considered whether the animals were always kept like that; we were just thrilled and terrified to see them so close, closer than was possible even at the zoo.
I don't recall all the animals we saw, but of course there were elephants, lions, tigers, horses. It was absolutely amazing to see them, relatively loose in the centre of the Garden. The sense of danger was a large part of the attraction, I suppose.
As an adult, I have seen the Chinese State Circus, a Dutch circus and a travelling British one (Zippo's). The Chinese State Circus was phenomenal, and animal free. I would gladly see them again if they come my way. The Dutch circus was all right (and animal free), but suffered from some of the artistes
taking themselves too seriously; it was laughable, but in the wrong way. Zippo's was simply brilliant - but not quite animal free. The ringleader had a troupe of parakeets, who performed several tricks. They seemed to be enjoying themselves so I guess that was reasonable then.
Circuses without animals depend on human ingenuity to keep the audience happy. The Chinese State Circus delivered shed-loads of entertainment, some of it simply breathtaking. But if that spark isn't there, it can be a dull two hours.
Personally, I think that animals should be free to live naturally in their own environments, but I say that as someone who goes to the zoo perhaps once a year. Zoos vary greatly, but at their best, they help us to understand the animals better so that we can provide them with good, safe habitats - both in those zoos and in the wild. Zoos develop a better understanding of animal health issues and breeding, which can be vital if some species are to survive what we have done/are doing to this planet. And, to be honest, some of us will never travel the world to see non-indigenous animals on their own turf, so zoos offer us the chance to see these animals beyond the confines of our television or computer screens.
So I can live with animal-free circuses, but I think zoos (especially the large safari-park type), sea-life centres and suchlike places should remain in business. How much easier it would be to destroy our world, and their environment, if we never ever came into close proximity with the many wonderful creatures who share this planet.