Big void under the big top

Elephants: Cole Brothers joins the list of traveling circuses that have canned the creatures because of costs and pressure from animal rights activists.

May 06, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

YESTERDAY MORNING, HOWEVER, THE COUPLE — For the past two decades, Charles Blair and his wife, Jane, have come to the Cole Brothers Circus' stop in Annapolis to witness a tradition as old as the circus itself: elephants raising the big top.

Yesterday morning, however, the couple -- in their 80s -- watched in confusion as dozens of workers lifted the colossal red tent above the dusty circus grounds at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

"I even brought peanuts for the elephants," said Charles Blair, pulling a brown paper bag out of his pocket. "But someone just told us that there aren't any this year."

Faced with dwindling audiences, sliding profits and increased pressure from animal rights organizations, traveling circuses, including Cole Brothers, New York's Big Apple Circus and Missouri's Circus Flora, have sent their elephants into early retirement -- canning one of the most costly acts for such shows to maintain.

"In the next 10 years, we think even zoos may no longer have elephants," said Bob Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, which represents more than 4,000 circuses, carnivals and other acts in the United States and Canada. "I'm as disappointed as the little kids who come out to see them."

Like the Baltimore Zoo, which last year threatened to lend out its two elephants to stay afloat, Cole Brothers is renting out its two 9,000-pound Thai elephants -- Tina, 38, and Jewel, 40 -- for television commercials and educational performances. Bill Tebbetts, marketing director for the DeLand, Fla.-based circus, said the decision was purely financial.

"Our business has been going down over the past few years, and we wanted to add some more flair to the show," he said.

Tebbetts also said that at more than $60,000 a year, elephants are "quite expensive" to care for on the road.

But Richard Farinato, director of Captive Wildlife Protection for the Humane Society, thinks Cole Brothers' decision reflects a trend among circuses that are finally responding to pressure from animal rights activists, and recent, highly publicized violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

"I do think what we're seeing with the circuses is that they're deciding that it's not worth taking the heat," Farinato said. "To change the way they're doing business, they've realized they need to get the elephants out of sight."

Cole Brothers' elephants became even more of a financial burden last year, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture slapped the circus with a $2,750 fine when a trainer hit one of the pachyderms with a broom. Tebbetts said the incident was limited to one trainer, who was fired.

Allegations of abuse

Over the past decade, animal rights activists have argued tirelessly that circus animals suffer from confinement, neglect, stress, isolation and, in some cases, abuse.

In March, the USDA seized 16 elephants from John F. Cuneo Jr., owner of Hawthorne Corp., one of the largest providers of circus animals in the country. Cuneo and his trainers were charged with failure to control their animals in public and provide them with adequate veterinary care, according to the USDA.

One of the few circuses that maintains a large elephant herd is Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, which breeds its animals on a 200-acre farm in Florida.

But even Ringling Brothers has been targeted for animal rights abuses. In 1998, the venerable circus was fined $20,000 by the USDA for forcing a sick elephant named Kenny to perform. He later died, and animal rights activists dubbed the circus "The Cruelest Show on Earth."

Farinato said he worked for 15 years at a zoo, where he became familiar with elephant behavior.

"I will say that there is no way to get an elephant to do what it's asked to do without showing it that you have the upper hand," he said. "Somewhere down the line, she will have to be told that a human is in charge, and that is often achieved with physical dominance."

Johnson, of the Outdoor Amusement Business Organization, disagreed.

"A lot of these animals in captivity live much longer and are cared for better than they would be in the wild," he said.

He warned that the demise of the circus elephant could mean the demise of the circus.

"In our surveys, we've found that the exotic animals are one of the top three draws to the circus," he said.

With the success of circuses like the Cirque du Soleil, however, many argue that the elephant no longer needs to be the bread and butter of the big top.

"There are plenty of animal-free circuses that are popular with the public," said Farinato.

Or there are circuses such as Big Apple, which replaced its elephants with domestic animal acts, including cats, dogs, horses and camels.

A let-down for some

For many circus-goers, however, the absence of elephants is a let-down.

With her sister and 10-year-old granddaughter, Maureen Jockel watched the striped circus tent go up in Annapolis and felt disappointed.

"We thought they were just not using them this year to pull up the tent, but we didn't know there wouldn't be any at all," she said, clutching a plastic bag filled with peanuts she planned to feed to the squirrels. "I think it's sad."

The circus, she worried, "will be gone in 15 years."

Tonight, the Cole Brothers circus will pack up its trailers and travel through the night to its next destination, Gaithersburg. The show will go on, it seems, with or without the elephants. And Charles and Jane Blair plan to return.

"It's fun to watch the elephants, but they're really just symbolic of the circus," said Charles Blair. "They don't really need them."

With that, he pulled out his peanuts and began offering them to passers-by.

Sun staff writer Jason Song contributed to this article.

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