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Jun./Jul. '02 Articles:

Cruelty Under
the Big Top!

for Sale

Notes from the Cultural Wasteland

The Muddlemarch: 1

The Muddlemarch: 2

Another Oil War?

The Last Taboo

Lone Star Nation?

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The circus is no fun for animals. They don't choose to ride bicycles, jump through fiery hoops, stand on their heads, or prance around on their hind legs in silly costumes. Circus trainers use whips, muzzles, electric prods, and other torturous devices to force them to perform these frightening, dangerous, and demeaning "tricks" that they cannot comprehend.

When animals aren't performing, they are kept in cages or chains. They are deprived of their basic needs to exercise, roam, socialize, forage, and play. Big cats, bears, and primates are forced to eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and urinate in the same cramped cages. Elephants are chained by the legs for hours at a time. They often suffer crippling injuries from the constant chaining and physically difficult tricks. Veterinarian Sara Winikoff, who has experience with both captive and wild elephants, reports that "chaining their feet, restricting their access to natural exercise patterns and behaviors impedes their health dramatically."

In large circuses, animals are often forced to perform night after night for 48 to 50 weeks every year. Due to the substandard, stressful conditions, many animals exhibit stereotypic behaviors such as swaying back and forth, head-bobbing, pacing, bar-biting, and self-mutilation.

Smaller and poorer circuses often do not even provide animals with adequate water, food, and veterinary care. Regardless of the size of the circus, the animals inevitably suffer under the big top. Take a look behind the scenes at some of the circuses that use and abuse animals for human amusement.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (Ringling) should be billed as "the cruelest show on Earth." Over the years, Ringling's animal care record has been riddled with tragic animal deaths and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) citations, investigations, penalties, and warnings--a fact that Ringling tries desperately to keep hidden behind the curtain.

In one case, Ringling failed to provide veterinary care for Kenny, an endangered baby Asian elephant who was forced to perform even though Ringling officials knew he was sick. He died just hours after his third appearance in the ring in one day. Ringling paid $20,000 to settle this case with the USDA.

Ringling officials took Benjamin, a 4-year-old endangered elephant, away from his mother before she could teach him to swim. He drowned while attempting to flee from a handler who was prodding him with a bullhook (a tool resembling a fireplace poker with a sharp steel hook on the end). Soon after, the USDA cited Ringling for injuring two more baby elephants who were dragged, crying and struggling, from their mothers. The chains used to pull the babies away caused sores and welts about their ankles.

In another case, a wild-caught sea lion was found dead in the carrier Ringling used to transport her. Government inspectors have cited Ringling for endangering tigers who were nearly baked alive in a boxcar, for failure to provide animals with sufficient space, and for failure to provide animals with adequate exercise. Ringling was slapped with a "strong letter of warning" by the USDA for killing Arnie, an endangered Bengal tiger who, while locked in his cage, was blasted with a shotgun five times by an angry trainer. Ringling has even paid someone to surgically implant a horn into a goat's head so the circus could parade him around as a "unicorn."

In 1999, a horse named Sabre collapsed and died while Ringling was marching the animals through the streets of Norfolk, Va., where People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is headquartered. Then, in 2002, PETA and other eyewitnesses saw an elephant fall to her knees during the animal march. Instead of showing concern, her "trainers" simply screamed at her to get back on her feet.

Despite this shameful history, Ringling's web site proclaims that "Animal Care at Ringling Bros. -- it's the best there is." In January, Ringling Chairman and Producer, Kenneth Feld, took out a full page "Open Letter to Animal Rights Groups" in several newspapers, including The New York Times. In the ad, he insists that "carefully regulated laws enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture" ensure Ringling's humane treatment of animals. What the ad didn't reveal, however, is that USDA inspection reports confirm the numerous instances in which Ringling did not comply with the regulations.

In the ad, Feld attempted to divert attention away from Ringling by attacking various animal rights groups on completely unrelated topics. Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States told Today show viewers on January 8, 2002, that "Ringling obviously does not want people to know what goes on behind the big top, and they've tried to turn this around rather than have the focus be on its mistreatment of elephants..." Representatives from Ringling had refused to appear on the show at the same time as animal protection groups.

Carson & Barnes Circus

A PETA undercover investigator obtained footage in March 1999 of vicious elephant beatings at Carson & Barnes Circus. Tim Frisco, the circus' animal care director and longtime elephant trainer, was caught on tape violently attacking, shocking with an electric prod, and screaming and cursing at endangered Asian elephants. Frisco is heard on the tape instructing other elephant trainers to hurt the elephants until they scream, "holler," and run away; to use both hands to beat the elephants with a bullhook; and to sink the bullhook's metal spike into their flesh and twist it back and forth until they scream in pain.

Says Frisco on the tape, "Sink that hook into 'em ... when you hear that screaming then you know you got their attention. ... Right here in the barn. You can't do it on the road. ... I'm not gonna touch her in front of a thousand people. ... She's gonna fucking do what I want and that's just fucking the way it is." Frisco can also be heard shouting, "I am the boss, I will kick your fucking ass," with regard to the elephants.

According to recent Associated Press reports, Barbara Byrd, a member of the family that owns Carson & Barnes, was disturbed by the images and the trainer's use of profanity. "The language was horrible, terrible. We do not condone that," Byrd said.

Frisco's language may have bothered Byrd, but his cruelty apparently didn't. Although she stated that he is no longer an elephant trainer, Byrd revealed that Frisco is "still employed by Carson & Barnes."

Despite the tape, Byrd went on to claim that PETA "cannot provide any documentation that proves we have ever injured an elephant." However, footage of Tim Frisco's abusive training session can be viewed on PETA's web site Byrd feels the tape is "not representative" of the way Carson & Barnes elephants are trained.

Sadly though, elephants are typically broken and made to fear their handlers by means of force. Ray Ryan, who worked with elephants at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, is now convinced that most elephant trainers use punishment to dominate elephants.

In his book, Keepers of the Ark: An Elephant's View of Captivity, Ryan describes the attitude that persists among most elephant keepers: "How dare the elephants fight back when we ask them to do a certain behavior? They're on this planet to serve us in any way we see fit, and if any one of them chooses to do otherwise, he or she will pay the price."

Ryan is especially appalled at the use of bullhooks, a tool he once used himself. Elephant skin is very sensitive, reports Ryan. "They can feel flies land on their backs--it's only the trainers who say that their skin is thick and tough." According to Ryan, certain spots, such as the top of the ear, underneath the jaw, inside the leg near the vulva, and the back and front of the lower leg, are the most sensitive. "These are the areas where we would focus on if discipline needed to be done." Circus and zoo-goers rarely see how badly elephants are affected by bullhooks. Ryan admitted that when he and fellow elephant keepers drew blood, they would mix some dirt with water and put it on the open wound so it would dry the same color as the elephant's skin.

Former Ringling employee Glen Ewell has similarly reported that "Ringling even employs a guy to use some special powder to stop up the bleeding when an elephant is hooked too hard. They call it 'spot work.'"

Bullhooks are routinely used by elephant trainers because, according to Veterinarian Sara Winikoff and other elephant experts, an elephant will not voluntarily perform difficult, physically strenuous and painful maneuvers many times a day on command. "No form of positive reinforcement alone will elicit these unnatural behaviors," says Winikoff.

Jane Garrison, PETA's elephant specialist, agrees. As Garrison told the Today show host Katie Couric, when she appeared with Pacelle to discuss Ringling's treatment of animals, it's ridiculous to think that circuses are training animals with positive reinforcement. "If that were the case," said Garrison, "the trainers would be carrying a bag of food treats, not a bullhook..."

Carol Buckley, a former elephant trainer and current executive director of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, spent nearly 15 years performing in various circuses with her elephant Tarra. She reviewed the Carson & Barnes video and acknowledged that "this method of training elephants, using punishment to instill a sense of fear, is standard practice in the circus industry." She added, "All elephants used in circuses are trained in this fashion. It is not possible to train an elephant to perform circus routines solely with positive reinforcement."

Elephant "training" is a family affair among the Frisco's. Tim Frisco and his brothers, Joe Jr. and Terry, learned the trade from their father, Joe Frisco Sr., who was once a Ringling elephant trainer. Joe Sr. and Terry currently "own" three African elephants who perform for the Shrine Circuses, UniverSoul Circus, Royal Hanneford Circus, and several fairs under the name of Frisco Bros. Petting Zoo.

In addition to Tim Frisco's violent beatings, PETA's investigator also videotaped a handler at Carson & Barnes Circus using a blowtorch on an elephant's skin to remove hair, and chained elephants and caged bears rocking and swinging their heads endlessly--the extreme stereotypic behavior caused by mental distress.

Suarez Bros. Circus

Visitors to the tropical Suarez Bros. Circus are horrified to see skinny, lethargic, filthy, diseased polar bears languishing far from their frigid, arctic homes. These nomadic polar bears are forced to perform in the hot, humid regions of Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Video footage shows the overheated bears panting constantly while being hit, whipped, and forced to do ridiculous, frightening, and degrading tricks.

When not performing, the polar bears are crammed in tiny cages. They are denied adequate veterinary care and suffer from skin disease, lumps on the head, protruding hipbones, arthritis, and extreme stress. In an October 1998 case, an emaciated polar bear endured a prolonged and agonizing death after a severe case of heartworm went untreated for months.

Last year, the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources, working with the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, charged the circus with animal cruelty after finding the bears living in feces-caked cages with no relief from temperatures that soared to a sweltering 113 degrees. Incredibly, the judge in Ponce, Puerto Rico, failed to find the circus guilty of cruelty. The abrupt judgment was issued without deliberation on Feb. 28, 2002, despite irrefutable evidence by the prosecutor and testimony from eyewitnesses, a representative from the U.S. weather service, and a veterinarian from the Detroit Zoo with extensive polar bear experience.

When asked if many Puerto Ricans supported the circus' decision to keep arctic animals in such tropical conditions, PETA's Hispanic Community Outreach Campaign Coordinator, Enrique Lopetegui, explained that "most Puerto Ricans have no idea that this is going on. If we did to dogs what this circus does to polar bears, we'd all be in jail. I'm completely appalled that the judge said that there was no cruelty involved. What else does he need? A video of bears being set on fire? Thrown into a woodchipper? Just look at the video!"

The polar bears are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and anyone wanting to import and display them must convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that their facility offers a program for education or conservation purposes, based on professionally recognized standards. Although the use of polar bears in abusive circus routines is not an educational display by any standard, the USFWS granted the Suarez Bros. Circus the import permit.

The circus has now applied for authorization from the USFWS to re-export the bears to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. The polar bears cannot legally leave U.S. territory without authorization from the USFWS. Because the USFWS has been heavily criticized for its failure to properly implement the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is feared that the agency may quietly expedite this process to avoid further controversy. PETA, the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, and other concerned organizations are encouraging people to write to the USFWS to demand that the agency refuse to allow the circus to re-export the polar bears.

Taking a small step toward justice, the USFWS confiscated Alaska, one of the seven polar bears, on March 6, 2002, because the circus allegedly submitted fraudulent documents to the government so that it would be allowed to import and exhibit her. The circus' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species permit indicated that Alaska was born at Zoo Atlanta, while the zoo had evidence that the bear listed on the certificate had actually died in a German zoo in 1994. The USFWS is believed to have conducted tests comparing Alaska's DNA to a maternal sample supplied by Zoo Atlanta. Now, thanks to PETA's efforts, Alaska has a better home at the Baltimore Zoo, with the facility's lone male polar bear.

The grossly inappropriate use of polar bears in a traveling tropical circus has sparked an international outcry among animal protection groups, polar bear experts, zoos, members of Congress (including U.S. Reps. George Miller and Earl Blumenauer), and a growing list of celebrities (including Sarah McLachlan, Pamela Anderson and punk-metal band Sum 41). The circus has ignited such outrage that the Puerto Rican Congress is now considering a ban on animals in circuses, and a bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress to prohibit the use of polar bears in traveling shows.

Animal-Friendly Fun

Puerto Rico certainly wouldn't be the first place to restrict or outlaw the use of animals in circuses and other performing acts. Finland, Israel, Sweden, Singapore, and 19 different cities and provinces in Canada ban the use of animals in circuses. Thirteen U.S. cities prohibit animal acts, including Pasadena, CA; Stamford, CT; Hollywood, FL; and Boulder, CO. As well, Pompano Beach and Tallahassee, FL; Collinsville and Woodstock, IL; and Southhampton, NY forbid the use of chemical, manual, and electrical means to make animals perform--in effect banning animal acts. Several other towns and communities also have various ordinances regarding animal exhibits.

A growing number of animal-friendly circuses, such as Circo Fantastico, Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Ingénieux, Earth Circus, Flying High Circus, Lazer Vaudeville, and The New Pickle Family Circus, among others, dazzle audiences with human acrobatics and performances worthy of awe and admiration.

The performers under the big top should be there by choice and skill, not force and domination. Leave the animals out of the circus.

Heather Moore is a staff writer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)

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