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Elephant Walk

With the Ringling Bros. circus returning to Albany this week, the animal-cruelty debate resurfaces

by Erin Pihlaja on May 1, 2013 · 3 comments

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus is coming to town this week (May 2 through May 5), and not everyone is excited about it.

Animal-rights activists have historically lashed out at the 94-year-old circus, but recent allegations of animal cruelty along with a $270,000 fine paid in 2011 by Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Bros., to settle USDA allegations that the operation violated the Animal Welfare Act, have reinvigorated the passions of those who don’t want to see elephants, tigers, horses and other animals trotted out to perform under the Big Top.

“I’m just somebody who cares and can’t take it anymore,” said Karen MacWatters, a local teacher. She added that she is not aligned with any organized group of activists or protestors.

MacWatters said it was after being inundated with area advertisements for the event (held at the Times Union Center), that she started to research the training practices of Ringling Bros. She supports her convictions with examples from articles published in Mother Jones (“The Cruelest Show on Earth,” 2011) and videos from undercover investigations, such as PETA’s 2009 short showing elephants being struck repeatedly with a bullhook. Depending on whom you ask, a bullhook is either a training device or a torture tool that resembles a fireplace poker. Either way, it appears to inflict pain on whomever it hits.

“After watching them parade those poor tortured animals throughout the city, I thought, ‘I can’t sit at home and live with myself if I don’t do something,’” MacWatters said. She doesn’t necessarily like some of the tactics used by other activists, including the graphic photos of abused animals carried by some, but she does try to make her presence and opinions known on the sidewalks outside of the event.

On one side of the issue, you find people like MacWatters, who believe that the training and traveling conditions of circus animals, along with the practice of separating baby elephants from their mothers and the entire concept of using wild animals as captive human entertainment for profit, are unacceptable. On the other, you find people like Joey Frisco III, a third-generation Ringling Bros. senior elephant handler, who believe that events like the circus help to conserve and protect endangered species like the Asian elephant, and provide an environment that “mentally stimulates” the creatures.

“Number one, Ringling Bros. did not admit to any wrongdoing,” Frisco said of the settlement with the USDA. “It was a legal battle, and basically a business deal between Feld Entertainment and the USDA that’s led to a more transparent and better working environment. We’re moving forward.”

Frisco recalled growing up in the circus and said that the elephants’ needs were always a priority. “The animals came first, the elephants ate first—before us,” he said. “They’re a part of our family, and it’s hard for people to understand the connection we have. We’re with them 24-7.”

Frisco pointed out that, since the settlement, a USDA compliance officer has been with the outfit, and that the circus is held to federal, state, and local regulations. He also noted that the show is live, and people are welcome to observe how the animals are treated (onstage) for themselves. Still, he admits, it’s not perfect. “Are there some wrongdoings? Yes,” he said. “Do we strive to make sure they are minimized? Yes. All inspections show we are taking care of our elephants.”

Delcianna Winders, PETA’s director of Captive Animal Law Enforcements, doesn’t buy it. “Ringling is currently under investigation for violations of the Animal Welfare Act after an arena security guard reported in a sworn affidavit that he witnessed a Ringling employee forcefully strike an elephant who was in chains with a sharp metal-tipped bullhook at least six times,” she said. “Just last month, a director at New York’s Nassau Coliseum reported in a sworn affidavit that she saw a Ringling handler repeatedly strike an elephant with a bullhook and then put the sharp end of the hook into the elephant’s mouth and forcefully yank repeatedly. According to the affidavit, the elephant wailed in response and the Ringling handler yelled and cursed at the animal. We have met with local authorities about this incident, and it is currently under investigation.” She provided Metroland with copies of those affidavits.

Both Frisco and MacWatters believe that if people were educated properly, they would see the validity in each of their positions. Both sides invite people down to the circus this week to decide for themselves where the truth lies.