PETA Accuses Shrine Circus of Animal Abuse
“Wow,” says a little girl from two rows back, the glitter paint of a pink and purple butterfly twinkling around her eyes. “How is that even possible,” asks another young voice nearby, placing emphasis on every syllable. Mouths agape and eyes affixed, children stare in awe and wonder as performers execute acts of daring just yards from their hard plastic seats.
Interrupted only occasionally by the tugs of little hands, parents watch the scene from digital screens and viewfinders, snapping photos fervently of girls spinning meters above the ground from their hair and a single man commanding eight tigers.
San Angelo had come to see the Suez Shrine Circus Saturday, for many unbeknownst that their very patronage has been an issue of ongoing controversy.
“We have a campaign against all circuses that use animals,” said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) activist Carney Chester in an interview Friday, “because the only way to get a multi-ton elephant to perform or to get a tiger to jump through a ring of fire is to train them from the onset with physical punishment that begins when they were very small.”
The Shrine Circus is not licensed to exhibit animals, and therefore must lease them from other companies for shows. PeTA contacted LIVE! on Tuesday of last week to share accounts of abuse to animals made by circuses that they are aware of.
Although the local Shrine performance had received its animals from George Cardin, the email itself referred to offenses made by Carson and Barnes, a circus based in Hugo, Ok.
The message, however, is the same, says Chester, and it is one surrounded by cruelty.
“These animals are subjected to physical abuse, deprivation of species-specific needs, just for a few fleeting moments of entertainment,” she says, noting that training an exotic animal differs from any other. “I can train my dog to sit without abusing it. You can’t do that to an elephant. Elephants have to be beaten with bullhooks.”
Accusations of abuse and deprivation are not small ones to make, and Barbara Byrd, owner of Carson and Barnes takes offense to such charges.
“I believe we do take care of our animals,” Byrd says. “We are inspected regularly by the USDA—they can make unannounced inspections any time they want. We have a good record with the USDA, otherwise we wouldn’t be in business.”
Carson and Barnes has been in business for over 70 years in Hugo. Byrd’s grandfather, Obert Miller, started the circus in 1937 in Kansas with a single elephant. Gradually, Miller and Byrd’s parents moved further south until settling in Hugo in 1941.
“When they moved to town, they had just one truck and one elephant, and my mother and father lived in the truck with the elephant all winter when they first moved here,” Byrd explains. “They bought a farm out here that had a barn on it. My mother always laughed that the elephant had a house before she did.”
Now, Carson and Barnes has 26 elephants, as well as other exotic animals that belong to their circus. As for violations of USDA code, Byrd doesn’t deny them, but also states that those violations are not what PeTA claims they are.
“We’ve been in business over 70 years, and yeah, during that time you do get what are called violations. But those violations are not like starving, beating, not caring for the animals. It’s kind of like a car inspection or a health inspector going to restaurants; they find little things and you correct them,” Byrd says.
Byrd cites a couple of the offenses her company has received in the past couple of years. “We had a freezer that wouldn’t go down to the right temperature to defrost the cat meat…We had a leaky hose, somebody forgot to put the top on the dog food container. We had a guy a couple of years ago that answered his cell phone,” Byrd continues.
Whether or not these violations constitute abuse from PeTA’s perspective, the biggest concern appears to be that animals are confined and worked, some harshly and extrmely.
“Because the very nature of using these exotic wild animals for performance involves them being chained and cruelly confined, forcing them to perform, and frequently, painful tricks…the very nature of using animals in these acts is very cruel. We advise anyone who cares about these animals not to go to any circus,” Chester says.
The current campaign against the circus is two-fold. According to Chester, the objective is to allow for only circuses that are animal-free, and that those animals that currently perform be moved to a natural sanctuary where they can be given the utmost of care.
“The circuses can entertain just as well without the use of the animals,” Chester says. “The animal acts account for maybe 2 out of 20 acts at the circus. The Cole Brothers Circus, for example, was required to provide an animal-free version of its show to comply with an existing ban on the use of exotic animals in one venue, and they celebrated their show as ‘just as dazzling’ and ‘just as entertaining,’” Chester says.
There are several PeTA-approved sanctuaries throughout the United States, one of those a 23,000-acre stretch in California. The goal of the sanctuary is to provide a safe captive environment that mirrors nature and that doesn’t sell admission tickets or give tours to seek profit. The sanctuary is solely to rehabilitate abused exotic performers and to give them a place to retire.
Chester warns of other encampments funded by circuses that would allege to be sanctuaries, and states their sole purpose is to propagate the species for profit.
Responding to a question regarding whether or not the elephants reproduce at a sanctuary, Chester said, “No, [they] never [reproduce]. The true sanctuary does not allow breeding…the bulls and the females are kept separate.” As to whether this separation from the opposite sex and all other animals such as tigers is natural, Chester responded, “Yes it is [natural]. In the wild, the elephants roam in matriarchal herds. They’re groups of females. They’re mothers, daughters, sisters. The males, when they’re 7-10 years old, leave and they go off on their own.”
Byrd, on the other hand, sees this a little differently. Following the passing of her parents, the bulk of their estate was left directly to the elephants, for their perpetual care. She doesn’t believe that caring for animals can only be done in one of the above-mentioned sanctuaries, and cites the work of her family as example.
“We care about the animals,” Byrd said. “We do have places where they can go out in nature. We’ve got a huge ranch out here. I’ve got a couple of hundred acres. We rotate our elephants out, they perform for a while, then they come back here. When they’re retired we keep them…we keep them together, they’ve been together all of their lives.”
Byrd has the second largest population of elephants in the United States behind Ringling Brothers. In 1993, her parents founded the Endangered Ark Foundation, a non-profit which seeks to support and acquire land for animal refuges, educate the public, and acquire threatened animals.
Carson and Barnes also regularly checks their animals and has had them examined on a number of factors by Dr. Friend at Texas A&M University, for stress, temperatures and health both before and after performance and travel.
San Angelo may never know what happened behind the scenes on Saturday and Sunday at the Spur Arena, but the reputation of the Shrine Circus had preceded the show.
“We’re here for our enjoyment,” said Tonya Solisbery, responding to whether she’d come for herself or for the kids. “And especially because it’s for a good cause,” she referenced the Shriners Hospitals for Children. “I don’t think the Shriners do [abuse the animals], but there are probably others that do.”
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