The Pittsburgh Shrine Circus was supposed to be “THE PLACE FOR FUN!” according to all-caps-heavy advertisements that promised acrobats, an array of animals and a special appearance by a Marvel Comics legend.
“FIVE HUGE SHOWS with SPIDER-MAN, ELEPHANTS, TIGERS, A SINGING PIG, THE WORLD’S SMALLEST ELEPHANT, THE CHICAGO BOYZ, and MORE!” the circus blared on Facebook this week. “SOOO MUCH FUN FOR EVERYONE!”
The camels, however, were never hyped to such a degree. It appeared the ungulates’ main duties at the Shrine Circus were to remain tethered and give children rides during intermission.
But it was the camels that grabbed headlines at the circus Sunday after one of the animals became “spooked” and began running amok across the arena floor, authorities said.
The incident occurred around 3:30 p.m. Sunday at PPG Paints Arena in downtown Pittsburgh, during the intermission of the Shrine Circus’s last performance in town for the year. Moments before, the scene had been noisy but joyful: On one end of the arena, children bounced in inflatable castles. Closer to the center, a half-dozen ponies, attached to a rotating wheel, waited for riders.
In another ring, a pair of camels — one clad in a blue covering, the other not — were giving people rides. Suddenly, one of the camels was startled and began bucking, according to Pittsburgh Public Safety spokesman Chris Togneri.
In a video of the incident, a person could be seen clinging to the hump of the covered camel, thrashing violently as the animal bucked its way down the side of the arena.
For a few seconds, the arena became a circus indeed, with audience members shrieking as panicked circus workers rushed to contain the renegade camel.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please — please remain calm,” an announcer implored. “No unnecessary movement.”
An onlooker recording the chaos on his cellphone offered a blunt assessment of the situation: “Dang.”
Several witnesses told local news outlets that the camel suddenly grew frightened because a child threw a shovel at its feet.
Jenny Lynch, who said she did not see what caused the camel to buck, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that a woman and two girls were riding the animal before it was startled and reacted “like a bucking bronco.”
“The woman was holding onto the littlest one, then she fell right onto her head . . . The woman was trying so much to hold on to the child,” Lynch told the newspaper. “I was shouting, ‘Jesus help them.’ It was very scary.”
Authorities said that it was unclear what caused the camel to react the way it did but that emergency workers already at the arena responded immediately.
“Handlers regained control of the camel within 11 seconds,” Togneri said.
In all, one adult and six children were injured in the melee, he said. A child suffered a fractured arm, the most serious of the injuries; the adult and the other five children had minor injuries, he added.
None of the animals was injured, Togneri said, and a veterinarian examined and cleared all the animals, including the camel, to return to the arena.
In other words, the show went on.
It was the 69th year for the Pittsburgh Shrine Circus, an annual event that serves as a fundraiser for the Syria Shriners organization. Its future was put in doubt even before this weekend, however, after the city council passed an animal treatment law in December that banned “bullhooks,” or hooked instruments, used on wild or exotic animals.
Shrine Circus Chairman Paul Leavy told the Associated Press then that the new law meant that the circus would have to become animal-free, leave Pittsburgh or shut down.
Humane Action Pittsburgh, an animal rights group that has long pushed for the circus to stop using animals, released an open letter to Leavy after the incident on Sunday, saying it was “saddened . . . but not surprised.”
“This is yet another reason animal circuses should be banned,” the group said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to those hurt in the Syria Shriners Circus today at PPG Paints Arena. We hope the Bullhook Plus Ban will be upheld in the future to keep animals and the public safe.”