In April 2012, a group of people from the Missoula-based animal rights organization Other Nations stood outside the Adams Center and protested the circus that was happening inside. One man held a sign with a picture of an elephant that read, "I'd rather die free than live as a slave." Another sign, referring to the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, which has sponsored circuses in Missoula for nearly 70 years, read, "Charity is no excuse for animal abuse." That sign depicted an elephant gripping the word "Help!" with its trunk.
The Shrine Circus returns to the Adams Center April 26 and 27, and for the third year in a row, Other Nations plans to be there too.
The Other Nations' website, which is updated regularly with news about animal rights issues, provides a summation of the group's effort: "Welcome to Other Nations ... offering information, inspiration, and support for human beings working to end speciesism."
Other Nations founder Kathleen Stachowski says that events like the Shrine Circus are a stark reminder of the unjust treatment of "animals who cannot advocate for themselves."
"Traveling circuses simply cannot meet the emotional and physical needs of the animals. They are caged and chained-up constantly. That's the reality of their lives," she says. "Circuses are no fun for animals."
But Barry Hartman, secretary of the Western Montana Shrine Club, says the concerns raised by Stachowski are unfounded. He believes that the Las Vegas-based Jordan World Circus, who could not be reached for comment and who the Shriners contract to produce the event, treats its animals with respect.
"They take the best imaginable care of those animals," he says. "Their livelihood depends on them."
He adds that the circus is not geared toward satisfying what he calls "the PETA people." He says that his organization is one of the largest philanthropic groups in the world, and since 1922 has sent more than a million youths to Shriners Hospitals for Children. For this year's circus, his club will pass out some 16,000 free circus tickets to children "from Polson to Darby."
"Those PETA people come out every year and beat up on us," he says. "But they don't seem to make any difference. They're like flies at a picnic."