Rights Group Targets Circus

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says Carson &  Barnes Circus, coming to Manassas, mistreats the elephants in its show.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says Carson & Barnes Circus, coming to Manassas, mistreats the elephants in its show. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

The circus is coming to town -- and bringing with it a small controversy over the alleged abuse of some very large animals.

Carson & Barnes Circus, the nation's second-largest touring circus, is taking its big-top act to the Prince William County Fairgrounds, Sept. 22 to 25. Four elephants will perform in the show, and last week, the national animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a letter to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors urging the board to ban "bull hooks, electric prods, and other devices that inflict pain on or cause injury to elephants."

"Elephants will not be afforded more humane care until communities prohibit these devices," wrote PETA spokeswoman Lisa Wathne.

The group, which adamantly opposes the use of elephants in any circus performance, has a video on its Web site, http://www.circuses.com , that purportedly shows Carson & Barnes elephant handler Tim Frisco instructing others to beat the animals to make them obey trainers' commands.

"Tear that foot off! Tear it off! Make 'em scream!," yells Frisco in the grainy video, obtained surreptitiously by PETA in the late 1990s. In the footage, Frisco and other trainers strike the animals while shouting at them.

Carson & Barnes said an internal investigation was conducted and though Frisco's language was "poor," there was no reason to discipline him. He continues to be an elephant handler for the company.

"He was guilty of barnyard language in a barnyard," said company spokesman Ben Trumble, who dismissed PETA as "the political voice of animal liberation," with a "Utopian philosophical ideology."

But Trumble said the company stopped using electrical prods on animals after the video was released.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture records, the circus operator also paid a $400 fine for improper "handling of animals" in 2002. USDA spokesman Darby Holladay said that the company had been cited in one other instance since that time, and that the department inspects the company regularly for compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. "They're like any circus in the United States," Holladay said. "Whenever there is an item of noncompliance, the licensee must correct that item."

Wathne said that PETA wants to pressure circuses to stop using elephants because their performances necessitate the threat of violence and abuse. "In their natural lives, they do not spend their time standing on barrels and each others' backs. The only way to get them to do that is through force," she said.

"If they did respond to positive reinforcement, the handlers would not be carrying bull hooks, they would be carrying bags of treats." Bull hooks are metal-tipped rods that resemble fire pokers, Wathne said.

PETA sends similar letters to local governments urging them to ban handlers' tools wherever a circus is scheduled to perform, Wathne said, acknowledging that the group has little expectation that local governments would act on their requests at such short notice.

County Supervisor Corey A. Stewart (R-Occoquan) said that he had not seen the letter nor the video, but that he didn't need to.

"This is not an issue the county should get involved in," he said. "Our job is to manage growth, set property taxes, improve the schools and maintain public safety, not regulate the circus industry. We've got far more important things to do.

"We need to do those things right before we get into the treatment of elephants."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company