<bt>Mary Zoeter was inspired by the story of Tyke, an elephant that went on rampage in 1994. The circus elephant killed her trainer and escaped into the streets of Honolulu, where she was brought down by police. That same year, Zoeter formed the Action for Animals Network in Alexandria.
“Even if they never laid a cruel hand to these animals, the confinement is still inhumane,” said Zoeter. “These animals never get a day off.”
Working with Willie Johnson, a senior at George Mason University, Zoeter organized a protest against the alleged cruel treatment of animals by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which has been performing at the Patriot Center.
Last Saturday, 20 people, a mix of community members and students, held signs and handed out pamphlets to circus goers leaving the afternoon performance.
“We want to raise awareness,” said Johnson. “We hope that this will help show a different viewpoint.” Johnson, who is not affiliated with an official university club or student group, set up a Web site and posted fliers around campus to rally support for Zoeter’s cause. “Its hard to get people interested,” said Johnson. “I’m glad we had such a good showing.”
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has approximately 70 elephants, mostly Asian, currently active in their shows. This number is approximate, as some elephants are retired each year to a reserve for elephants founded by Ringling Bros. in Florida. Although some have been born in captivity, many "were imported from Asia before the USDA stopped the practice in the ‘70s," said Ringling Bros. spokesperson Melinda Rosser.
"At our Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida," said Rosser, "we are preserving the Asian elephant breed because there is no wild left."
However, Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, claims that the reserve is not enough. "They aren't involved with any education campaigns, which the Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires for this kind of captivity." The Animal Welfare Institute filed suit against Ringling Bros. on July 11, 2000, in the District of Columbia.
"We have video footage of them using bull hooks," said Liss.
"It has a very sharp point, and elephants are sensitive in certain areas. Whether excessive force is used or they are prodded in one of those sensitive areas, they are causing elephants unnecessary suffering."
The Animal Welfare Institute claims that positive reinforcement should be used to train the elephants, rather than negative reinforcement. The bull hook, also called an ankus, "is a 3,000-year-old tool similar to what a shepherd would use for sheep," said Rosser.
When asked to respond to Zoeter's protest, Rosser said, "Each facility is inspected by local, state, and federal authorities. These agencies have the wherewithal to inspect announced and unannounced."
"THIS IS fairly standard,” said Barry Geisler, general manager of the Patriot Center, regarding the protest. “However, the Circus operates in public view. The authorities can search to see if they are in compliance. I believe they are. They aren’t operating in the dark.”
Dena Roudybush of Fairfax had no complaints in bringing her toddler, Ian, to his first circus. “He was mesmerized from start to finish,” said Roudybush, as Ian played with a whirling light toy from one of the concession stands.