The circus is again coming to Anaheim, which means that also coming to the Anaheim City Council are angry animal rights activists with stories of alleged abuse suffered by the performing animals.
This ritual, which played out in Anaheim’s council chambers this week, has gone on for years in city halls nationwide. But what is different this year is that the activists are armed with more direct evidence of the abuse than they’ve ever had before.
And this new evidence seems to be resonating with political leaders, including those in Orange County and Sacramento. But not so much in Anaheim.
Among the revelations changing officials’ minds are detailed accounts and pictures of the abuse left behind by a former circus worker who died late last year. The evidence was given to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and was the subject of this Washington Post story in December.
The story of the dead man’s experiences, to at least some degree, are helping PETA and other animal rights groups change policy.
Tuesday night, while the activists were showing the Anaheim City Council photos of alleged abuse of baby elephants, the Sacramento City Council was adopting an ordinance to regulate the treatment of animals in visiting circuses and rodeos.
Born Free USA, which urged Sacramento to adopt its animal inspection ordinance, has been encouraging cities throughout California to oppose the public display of wild or exotic animals.
A few Orange County cities seem to be in the forefront of that movement, with Santa Ana and Huntington Beach adopting the bans and, according to the Born Free USA website, the mayor of Newport Beach issuing a proclamation saying the city won’t allow them to be displayed for entertainment.
Members of the Anaheim City Council said little. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus is due at the Anaheim-owned Honda Center on July 28.
Councilwoman Lorri Galloway expressed dismay at the pictures the activists showed the council, but she supported the circus.
“Circuses are part of Americana,” Galloway said during the meeting. She asked City Manager Thomas Wood to report to the council on how animals are protected. Galloway said the presentation by the activists and the pictures showed some “terrible, terrible things” but circuses still can create “excitement.”
When the circus comes to town with its tail-to-trunk parade of elephants, angry activists said they will demonstrate against using wild animals to entertain humans. Training such animals, activists told the City Council, involved emotional and physical abuse.
“The cries of pain (from elephants) that rang through the back stage of Ringling were unbelievable,” said one of the witnesses, Andre du Broc, a former circus worker who flew to Anaheim from Kansas City, Mo., to tell council members of his experiences at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.
No one from Ringling — owned by Feld Entertainment, which also produces Disney on Ice — was present to discuss the issue, but Janice Aria, director of animal stewardship for Ringling, in a telephone interview, was as passionate in her denial of cruelty as opponents of using wild animals for entertainment were in their accusations.
In fact, Aria noted that passion for animals unites both sides in the debate over training techniques and the use of animals for entertainment.
Training, she said, is “all relationships.”
Among other things, activists accused Ringling of forcibly removing baby elephants from their mothers’ sides before they were ready to be weaned as one way of breaking their spirit and making them easier to train.
Aria acknowledged that she’s seen videos of circus animals being abused, but said Ringling does not tolerate abuse. She added that the tales of forced weaning are “just crap.”
“Everything is done slowly. Babies stay with their mothers until there are completely on solid food. There is a point at which the mothers let us know they (babies) have progressed to the next social level.”
Overall regulation of circus animals is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Opponents say inspectors aren’t on top of things and there are too few inspections. But USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said Ringling has a federal license to exhibit animals and is subject to unannounced inspections to ensure the animals receive humane care, veterinary treatment, sound nutrition and housing.
A similar inspection is done by the California Department of Fish and Game for the circus to get a state permit. And the Orange County Animal Care office will inspect the circus before it begins its July. 28 to Aug. 8 stand at the Honda Center.
Katie Ingram, community outreach supervisor for Orange County Animal Care, said a county inspector also is present during every show to make sure circus officials are “handling them in a humane manner.”
But Lisa Wathne, PETA’s captive exotic animal specialist, said in a telephone interview that “there are no regulations that apply specifically to training sessions, and no agency monitors training sessions.”
Trying to monitor such sessions, she said, would be “nearly impossible” anyway because no one would do anything inappropriate in the presence of an inspector. In PETA’s view, the answer is to stop using elephants and other exotic animals as entertainers.
Said Ringling’s Aria, “We all care for these majestic animals. Are our systems perfect? No, they are not.”