Circus brings tradition, controversy
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000
CLEARWATER -- The world's "largest circus under the big top" rolled into town late Friday and hoisted its crimson-and-gold tent Saturday morning in the Clearwater Mall parking lot.
The Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus brought with it approximately 116 years of tradition, 200 stage hands and performers, 70 trucks of equipment and three dozen animal stars: Asian elephants, Bengal tigers, camels, llamas and horses.
Circus elephants, with their massive size and close contact with the public, have received closest scrutiny. Among Clyde Beatty's past controversies:
In 1995, in separate incidents, Clyde Beatty elephants stampeded from trainers, damaging parked cars. In one case, they smashed a plate-glass window at a mall.
Clyde Beatty elephants have killed two people who climbed into their pens after shows in 1985 and 1993, police say.
The circus has been investigated four times since 1995 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture over alleged violations of federal animal welfare laws. One case resulted in a warning letter. Another resulted this year in a $10,000 "suspended" fine.
The fine came after the USDA alleged last year that four of the circus' six elephants were abused with an ankus, a stick with a metal hook trainers use to control and guide the elephants.
The circus contradicts each story. Take this year's USDA fine. The circus has experts who say the wounds were caused by ingrown hairs, said Clyde Beatty circus vice president Renee Storey.
But to settle the case, the circus agreed to spend $10,000 to continue to employ an elephant-handling consultant. The circus did not admit wrongdoing.
This February, the circus received additional citations from the USDA, which regulates captive exotic animals.
USDA inspectors found that employees at the circus' DeLand winter quarters failed to summon a veterinarian after an elephant named Helen in November allegedly hit a truck trailer's wall and paralyzed its tail. Subsequently, the animal was unable to defecate without soiling itself, the USDA reported.
The USDA inspector also noted scars on Helen and Bessie, the 55-year-old, 8,200-pound matriarch of the circus, possibly caused by an ankus hook and cautioned Clyde Beatty officials to handle its elephants "in a manner that prevents trauma or physical harm."
The circus disputed the USDA's spring report. Storey says the circus showed the USDA that tail paralysis is not uncommon in old animals and that an accident would not have caused Helen's condition. She also noted the USDA found the circus in compliance with rules during future visits.
"The elephants receive wonderful care," she said. "We're always doing something with them, from washing them, to bathing them, to checking them over for skin problems, to checking their feces to make sure it is . . . as it should be. If they didn't receive wonderful care, we would not currently have a 55-year-old elephant traveling with the circus."
Indeed, Saturday, in the parking lot of Clearwater Mall, there were no signs of mistreatment. The circus' three elephants munched on hay behind a low plastic fence. They tooted and squeaked at onlookers. Their handlers gave them affectionate pats.
Elephant superintendent Adam Hill led Bessie by voice commands through a crowded, loud parking lot, and commanded her to pose as if she were helping to set up poles at the edge of the circus' tent.
"Come here Bess, move up Bess," he said in a low voice, holding the hooked stick, or ankus, in his hand. "Move up Bess."
"This is what she's used to doing. This is what she's done all her life," Hill said. "Too many people just believe what the activists say, and in most cases the stories are just untrue."
As Clyde Beatty's three elephants -- Tina, Bessie and Jewel -- became accustomed to their new surroundings Saturday, circus crews hoisted their 3-story tent, which seats 3,000, off Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. The circus claims to be the largest of roughly 30 today still under the fabled big top, and one of about 100 such shows nationwide.
During its yearly eight-month, 110-city tour from March through November, the Clyde Beatty circus travels the East Coast to Maine, then through the Midwest back home to Florida. This week, they move on to Port Richey.
Along the route, animal activists sometimes show up to protest, although none were there Saturday morning.
Protesters also have taken their case to the Internet in recent years. Internet sites by the Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the California-based Performing Animal Welfare Society are especially critical.
"The evidence is pretty obvious that (employees at Clyde Beatty) don't take very good care of their animals," PETA researcher Debbie Leahy told the Times.
But circus officials say that such groups often exaggerate or omit key facts.
For instance, PETA's Web site explains how Helen, one of Clyde Beatty's oldest elephants, was forced to give rides and drag cages with a knee joint that popped while it walked. The elephant appeared to be in so much pain that a New Jersey branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals leveled charges of animal cruelty against Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. in 1999.
Three veterinarians, including a university professor who was the zoo veterinarian in Knoxville, Tenn., testified in the case that Helen had a degenerative joint problem and should not be working.
But a judge dismissed the charges, after finding the New Jersey SPCA officer had not actually observed Helen giving rides. PETA doesn't mention that in its information about the case. And that infuriates Clyde Beatty's spokeswoman.
"It's really frustrating because we would like to present the other side to people who are interested," Storey said. Helen has since been retired, Storey added.
Circus spokespeople are concerned about the increased attacks by "fringe groups."
"It's gotten more heated," said Catherine Ort-Mabry, the spokeswoman for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, based in Virginia. "We attribute it to the economy, because the activists have raised more money. They have more opportunity for campaigns."
Ringling Bros. is fighting two lawsuits by PAWS over alleged abuses of baby elephants and corporate espionage of the animal rights group's activities. Ort-Mabry declares the lawsuits are publicity stunts and the circus is "defending its good name."
The "greatest show on earth" is facing three open USDA investigations into its treatment of animals. Ort-Mabry says the circus is working to resolve the issues.
To counter such bad publicity, the circus established its own branch of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association in 1998. The group's Orlando-based spokeswoman is Heidi Herriott, who comes from a family of animal trainers. Her sister runs the camel and llama act in the Clyde Beatty circus. Her father's skill is heralded at a Sarasota monument.
"It's a philosophical debate that they believe animals should not be in circuses," Herriott said. But as far as science goes, she says, there is one American study that circus elephants are, in fact, less stressed and more physically fit than those in zoos.
Still, legislation was debated this year in Florida, Washington, Maryland and Congress that would have banned elephants from traveling shows like Clyde Beatty, if any of the bills had passed. Florida played into the spotlight: U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, was among the 50 co-sponsors of the proposed federal ban on elephants performing or giving rides. U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, now a Republican Senate candidate, headed the subcommittee that blocked the bill from a vote of Congress.
The bill's author, U.S. Rep. Sam Farr of California, says he may try again next year.
Farr said that since 1983, 29 people have been killed by captive elephants worldwide -- including a circus performer crushed to death in Riverview this year. More than 70 others have been injured as a result of rampages, when elephants snapped while on the performance circuit, according to figures by PAWS.
"The only time the animal can fight back is when it's not chained up," Farr said, "and history has shown that's when people get killed or injured."
But it's not just the "activists" who argue this. Experts such as Joel Parrott, executive director of the Oakland Zoo, testified this summer people should respect the unpredictable wildness of elephants, who several times have attacked employees at his zoo.
Parrott described elephants as fearless, intelligent, massive creatures who have to be hit, stabbed with the ankus and deprived of food to be forced under control. Because of the risk of an elephant going out of control, he said India has banned elephants in circuses and the national zoo industry group recommends against rides.
But circus supporters downplay any danger. They too have some zoo directors on their side.
Herriott also disputes the statistics about deaths, saying that 30-million people annually enjoy circuses, but a patron has never been killed at a performance. Clyde Beatty elephants have been implicated in two deaths -- both people who sneaked into the circus after hours, Storey emphasized. The circus claims that in one case, the female victim was murdered and dumped in the elephant pen. Police in New London, Conn., where the death occurred, say that's bunk.
Years later, the death still is debated in Connecticut and Capitol Hill. And while the debate goes on, so does the show -- as long as the fans keep coming.
These are some of the concerns raised about the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus and its elephants.
JUNE 2000: During a congressional hearing, a former employee testifies he saw other employees beat an elephant named Petunia after it performed poorly. Circus officials deny it and dispute his credibility.
MARCH 2000: The Clyde Beatty circus goes to court in New Jersey over 1999 animal abuse charges that the circus overworked an old elephant named Helen. Her knee popped while hauling cages and giving rides. The circus' experts refute the claims. Charges are dismissed.
FEBRUARY 2000: The U.S. Department of Agriculture cites the circus for failing to treat two elephants with conditions such as blood in urine and failing to employ a veterinarian experienced with elephants. Scars from the possible use of an ankus -- a stick with a metal hook that trainers use to control elephants -- are noted. The circus disputes the claims and is found in compliance in later checks.
JANUARY 2000: The circus agrees to settle a 1999 USDA case in which investigators alleged four elephants were wounded by an ankus. The circus does not admit wrongdoing but agrees to spend $10,000 to continue paying an elephant-care consultant.
NOVEMBER 1998: USDA officials cite the circus for failing to treat elephants with lesions and eye discharges. Other citations are for failing to update a veterinary plan, repair a trailer, store food properly and provide foot care. An inspector notes that elephants Conti and Helen are old and walk abnormally.
MARCH 1997: The USDA sends the circus a warning letter because it failed to notify its approved veterinarian that another doctor was to perform surgery on an elephant. Animal activists allege that contributed to the elephant Ola's death. The circus denies it.
JULY 1995: About 12 spectators are injured as circus patrons scatter after elephants Debbie and Frieda run from a circus tent during a show in New York, ramming a car in their path. The two elephants are shipped to a reserve in Illinois, and one now performs again.
MAY 1995: While walking in a mall parking lot in Pennsylvania, circus elephants are spooked by a pickup truck's horn, which causes them to stampede. Debbie and Frieda dent cars and crash into a plate-glass window of a Sears Auto Service shop.
JUNE 1993: A 22-year-old man is killed after climbing into the elephant pen of the traveling circus in Fishkill, N.Y., around 1:40 a.m.
JULY 1985: A 47-year-old woman is crushed to death, police say, when she enters the elephant pen early one morning in New London, Conn.
-- Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, congressional testimony, newspaper clippings
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