Resident seeks ordinance to ban circuses that use animals in their acts

Circuses have long been a source of amusement and entertainment for young and old alike.

They also have long been a point of contention between animal rights activists and the people who run the shows. Debates and studies can be found online, some supporting the animal right’s proponents, and others defending the treatment of circus animals.

The show, and the debate, will be forefront in Milford next week when Cole Brothers comes to town with its elephants, tigers and other circus acts: In Defense of Animals will be there too, and is planning a protest on circus nights.

“Classic Circus, American-style, complete with elephants, tigers, thrilling aerialists and acrobats, mystifying magic and hilarious clowns” will appear in Milford at the Westfield Connecticut Post mall from Monday, June 10, through Wednesday, June 12, with two Cole Brothers shows each day, at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m., according to a circus advertisement.

The show features “Princess Vicenta’s astonishing assemblage of white tigers, awesome elephants with special guest star siblings, Babies Val and Hugo.”

There will be daredevils, high wire acts, dogs, a human cannonball and clowns, the advertisement continues.

Standing outside, likely at a distance as they have in past years, will be the people holding signs and urging others to put their wallets away and skip going to the circus.

The protesters will include people like Milford resident Lorrie Davies, who is passionate about protecting animals and fighting for their well-being.

“The elephants are repeatedly beaten with bullhooks and sometimes even electro-shocked,” Davies argued in a recent letter to the Milford Mirror.

“The ‘trainers’ need to break the elephant’s will by causing pain and fear, which makes the poor animals submit,” she wrote. “The gruesome details are too graphic to write about but any Youtube video will confirm what is really going on behind the scenes.”

She’s not the only one who feels this way. According to a National Geographic News article from 2004, a number of municipalities have banned circus animal performances.

Davies wants to see Milford added to that list, and argues that there are circus shows that do not include live animals and that are just as entertaining.

“There is an alternative to this cruel event,” Davies said. “Cole Brothers has an animal-free circus called Circus of the Stars. It includes jugglers, acrobats, clowns, rides and all the fun of the circus minus the animals.”

Last year Davies appealed to the aldermen to create an ordinance that would ban circuses that use animals in their acts. There wasn’t much movement on her request, but she said several aldermen have recently gotten back to her and are studying the matter and sending her feedback.

Renee Storey, Cole Brothers’ vice president of administration, has a different story about circuses and their treatment of animals.

She argues that circus people treat animals well because they love them and work closely with them. The USDA requires a veterinarian supervisor be in place to oversee a health program for the animals. And while the vet doesn’t travel with the circus, the circus uses veterinarians along the way to make sure the animals receive regular examinations and inoculations, she said.

“By touring with animals, we raise consciousness about endangered species,” Storey said. “We make people care about the elephants and the tigers. There’s nothing like seeing animals up close.”

Cole Brothers does not use a bullhook to control elephants, she said, but rather an ankus, which she said is an elephant guide. Online sources refer to the ankus as an elephant hook, and show a metal pole with a curved pointy attachment. Storey described it as an “avoidance tool” used the way a “bit and bridle” are used on a horse.

“You can’t put a collar and a leash on an elephant,” Storey said, explaining the need for the ankus.

An electric fence keeps the Cole Brothers elephants enclosed in an area, and Storey said the system works along the same lines as electric fences that people use to keep their dogs in their yards and that agricultural businesses use to secure livestock.

The animals are happy, she said, referencing a study by Dr. Ted Friend from Texas A&M University. Friend studied circus animals and determined they were not stressed when traveling and that they became agitated when they did not perform with the other animals, Storey said.

Friend, a professor at Texas A&M University’s Department of Animal Science in College Station, conducted several behavioral studies on circus elephants, including one on the effects of transportation, according to an online article in National Geographic News from 2004.

“A time-lapse video camera was used to record the behavior of elephants while traveling in semi-trailers and railroad cars,” the article states. “The animals were owned by four circus operators: Clyde Beatty (now called Cole Brothers), Hawthorn Corporation, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, and Carson & Barnes.”

Elephants were frequently observed weaving—a shifting of weight from side to side. While doing this, they also ate, threw hay on their backs, and looked out the window, the article continues.

“The 2001 study concluded that weaving during transport did not appear to be indicative of poor welfare, because the elephants were engaged in other activities and not in a trancelike state,” according to the report.

However, the article also cites some of the abuse that Davies refers to. It notes that in 2004 circus animals were ordered removed from an Illinois company because of mistreatment and mishandling. Of 16 of those elephants, two tested positive for tuberculosis.

Davies hopes to see Milford’s aldermen follow up on circus restrictions. She would at least like to see the use of bullhooks banned here, and says that would be a good start.

Storey said she would like to see the circus people and the animal rights group meet and discuss issues objectively. She says Cole Brothers has nothing to hide, and their tents are open to people who want to come in and see how the animals are treated.

Milford Alderman Frank Smith said the city’s ordinance committee has been looking into the issue and is leaning toward an ordinance that bans bullhooks and not animal shows outright. He expects it might come to a full board meeting for action in the next couple of months.