Circus of the Scarred 

With the recent spate of circuses that have set up camp in Missoula in the last month, some local residents and animal rights groups are taking issue with these traveling road shows' records of animal neglect, mistreatment and abuse.

On July 7, Circus Gatti, one of more than 25 circuses currently traveling the country with animal exhibits, raises its big top at the Missoula County Fairgrounds for a fund-raising event sponsored by the Missoula Police Association. Like virtually all circuses that use captive wild animals, Circus Gatti has come under fire from animal rights groups for failure to meet minimum federal standards for the care and handling of its animals.

According to data provided by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Circus Gatti has been cited by the United States Department of Agriculture on at least a half-dozen occasions in the past 10 years for noncompliance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

Photo courtesy of PETA
Animal rights advocates say that many captive animals used in circuses are taken from the wild and are forced to perform unnatural and painful acts. Even the USDA admits that federal regulations are woefully inadequate.

As recently as January 1998, the USDA cited Circus Gatti for repeated violations relating to the safe housing of their elephants during winter months. PETA asserts that in August 1994, one of Circus Gatti's tigers allegedly got caught in a flaming hoop during a performance.

The group also reports that in May 1994, a complaint was filed with the USDA after a Circus Gatti employee allegedly tied a pony to a post, then repeatedly beat the animal. The complaint stated that "the trainer was hitting this pony so violently with the whip that you could hear the cracking of the whip in the stands."

USDA spokesman Jim Rogers could neither confirm nor deny this incident, saying that the federal Paperwork Reduction Act has made it very difficult, if not impossible, to access his agency's records from that year.

But according to Greg Kingsbury, national marketing director for Circus Gatti, their animals are "treated like personal pets" and are never abused.

"I'm an animal lover. In 11 years I've been fortunate enough to have never seen an animal abused," says Kingsbury. "If I ever saw anything abusive to animals, I wouldn't do this job anymore.

"In this business, for anyone to abuse animals is absurd," Kingsbury added. "They're our bread and butter. That's what the kids come out here for."

But Circus Gatti is not the only show taking heat from animal rights advocates. HSUS has compiled a 15-page rap sheet of incidents that have occurred at circuses over the past 20 years involving animal mistreatment, injuries or deaths of animals, trainers and spectators.

Included on that list is an incident reported in the San Jose (Calif.) News on April 5, 1998, in which eight horses owned by Sterling and Reid Brothers Circus were taken into custody by the San Bernardino Humane Society after the animals were found to be malnourished. The report states that Sterling and Reid Circus was later charged with cruelty to animals.

In fact, Sterling and Reid Circus visited Missoula just last month. This private, for-profit enterprise was permitted to distribute free tickets in Missoula's public schools, a practice that so infuriated Missoula resident Bob Clark and his 10-year-old daughter, Melissa, that they complained to the school superintendent. Melissa was later permitted to distribute anti-cruelty material to her fellow students.

Among the more high-profile circus animal disasters occurred in January 1998 at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Jacksonville, Fla. According to charges confirmed by the USDA, a 3 1/2-year-old baby elephant named Kenny died after being forced to perform two shows in one day while he was ill. Ringling Brothers later settled with the USDA and paid a $20,000 fine. In a two-year period, the USDA cited Ringling Brothers more than 65 times for AWA violations, according to an April 1,1995 article in The Washington Post.

"We see these repeated violations over and over, without anything being done [by the USDA]," says Jane Garrison, campaign coordinator with PETA. "Any time a circus can't meet AWA requirements, that's pretty pathetic."

As Garrison points out, the AWA, which dates back to 1966, imposes meager sanctions and is woefully inadequate. Animals such as bears, lions, and elephants may be housed in cages big enough only to turn around, and are rarely allowed out, except for performances. Food and water may be restricted to cut down on "unsightly messes" during shows that can involve unnatural or even painful acts. Signs of physical or psychological distress may also be visible to spectators.

Garrison says that of the 244 elephants currently making the rounds in traveling circuses today, 221 were taken from the wild, usually while still nursing with their mothers. Garrison, who personally witnessed this practice in Africa, says that baby elephants are routinely shackled and beaten with metal bullhooks or whips, which reportedly makes them easier to train. The AWA puts no restriction on such training methods.

Complicating the oversight process are the USDA's limited resources. Rogers admits that with only 65 inspectors nationwide conducting more than 10,000 inspections annually, many traveling exhibits are not inspected more than once a year. Garrison says that revocation of a handler's USDA license is virtually unheard of.

Kingsbury says that Circus Gatti uses Indian elephants, as well as African and Asiatic lions, Bengal, Siberian and Sumatran tigers. (Circus Gatti keeps no bears.) All of these animals, he asserts, were born in captivity.

But as Garrison puts it, "Just because I'm born in a closet, that doesn't mean I want to stay there."

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