Volume 76, Number 45 | April 4 - 10, 2007

League of Humane Voters members and animal-rights activists rallying outside Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Activists want to rein in circus use of wild animals

By Chris Bragg

In making their point on Saturday that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is cruel to animals, the League of Humane Voters of New York City was not subtle: Outside Madison Square Garden they chained and “beat” a person in an elephant costume with the same type of bull hook the circus uses to discipline elephants. 

During the circus’s first New York performance this year, John Phillips, the director of the N.Y.C. League of Humane Voters, said the group wants this to be the last year elephants and other wild animals are used in the circus.

“Ringling has been fined tens of thousands of dollars by the U.S.D.A. [United States Department of Agriculture] and is responsible for the deaths of at least 24 elephants since 1992,” he said. “They cannot be trusted to take care of animals properly. In fact, the Bronx Zoo plans to retire its elephants to a sanctuary because they can’t adequately meet the needs of their elephants. Who on earth believes that Madison Square Garden is a suitable environment for wild animals?”

Phillips urged the New York City Council to pass a ban on the use of wild animals in city circuses, which would essentially amount to a ban on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Phillips said 13 councilmembers had already come out in support of the ban. The main sponsor of the legislation is Councilmember Rosie Mendez.

“We say that we’re an enlightened society, but we allow animals to be tortured and do things quite unnatural,” Mendez said in an interview. “Jumping through flaming hoops and big elephants sitting on little chairs, it’s just not appropriate.” She added that 27 other municipalities had already passed similar bans.

More than 100 people turned out at the press conference, including celebrity speakers, such as Rue McClanahan from the television program “The Golden Girls.”  A surprise guest was Tom Rider, a former Ringling employee who worked as a “barn man” taking care of elephants.

“What I saw every day is what I call a ‘system of daily abuse,’” he said in an interview. He described the use of bull hooks that led to pools of elephant blood, as well as a lack of daily exercise for the elephants.

Ringling Bros. officials said the animals are, in fact, treated well.

“We’re very proud of the animal care we have,” said Tom Albert, a circus spokesperson. “They mean a great deal to us and are the heart of our shows.”

Albert said the accusations of mistreatment are inaccurate.

“They don’t really know what they’re talking about,” he said of the animal-rights activists, “whether it’s about working with animals or what we do when we care for our animals.”

Ringling Bros. is still popular among many New Yorkers. Early last Wednesday morning, roughly 1,000 people cheered wildly as a parade of 10 elephants walked down 34th St. to Madison Square Garden, in an event kicking off the circus season.

The attempted circus ban comes as the New York City Council recently passed legislation banning use of aluminum bats in high school baseball games and capping the number of pedicabs. (The mayor, however, last week vetoed the pedicab legislation.)

Although it pulled out all the stops last weekend with its caricature of an elephant beating, the League of Humane Voters still couldn’t upstage Barnum & Bailey. The circus made national news when Bello, its feature-attraction clown, lost his foot-high bike Friday night, only to have it returned on Sunday.

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