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Circus stirs controversy with elephant performance


Clowns of Joy is one of the acts scheduled to appear during performances of Garden Bros Circus performances at Minges Coliseum on Thursday.


Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A circus that may end its live elephant performances after this season is facing a protest at its Greenville show scheduled for Thursday.

Garden Bros Circus, based in Sarasota, Fla., is scheduled to perform shows at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in Minges Coliseum on the East Carolina University campus. Promotional materials distributed across Greenville earlier this month promote "Last Chance To See A Circus With Elephants Live" and boast "elephant, camel and pony rides" will be available along with "The Human Slingshot" and "Globe of Death."

The promotion comes in the wake of news that the famous Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus is closing in May due to declining attendance, which it attributes in part to protests that forced it to end elephant performances in 2016.

"This year, the owner hasn't made his final decision yet, but at the end of the tour they might not be touring with the elephants any more,” said Kaila Schlake, the Garden Bros. marketing director. “They want to make sure that anyone who wants to see them gets out and sees them." 

A newspaper in Bowling Green, Ky., featured a similar statement from a Garden Bros Circus spokesman when the show performed in that city in February 2016. A local animal rights advocate said the circus should immediately end not only its elephant performance but all its animal acts.

“Wild animals who perform in circuses endure a lifetime of misery and abuse,” says Marion Blackburn, founder of the Animal Welfare Coalition of North Carolina and a former Greenville City council member. “Practices behind the scenes are barbaric, as trainers brutalize animals so they will perform. These animals, taken out of their natural settings, spend their days fearing punishment and pain.”

Blackburn and other animal advocates have encouraged individuals to contact ECU officials and demand its contract with the circus be revoked, but the show is still scheduled.

If the show goes on, a protest will be held from 4-8 p.m. Thursday on Charles Boulevard at Ficklen Drive, one of the main entrances to Minges Coliseum, Blackburn said. The protesters will have handouts for individuals interested in learning about the treatment and living conditions of circus animals.

Garden Bros Circus does not own its elephants; they contract with another performance group, Schlake said. She said she did not know the name of the company; their handlers and the manager that had the information were unavailable late Tuesday afternoon.

"They are well taken care of,” said Schlake. “They have to have a veterinarian examine them at every location they go to. They have to have permits and shots and they actually see doctors more than our performers see doctors," Schlake said. Along with the elephants, Garden Bros Circus has animal performances featuring buffalo, llamas, camels and ponies.

Carson & Barnes Circus provides the elephant act, according to Blackburn and newspapers that have reported about Garden Bros Circus.

The United States Department of Agriculture had cited Carson & Barnes for more than 100 violations of the nation's Animal Welfare Act, according to Blackburn. The Associated Press reported last year that Carson & Barnes Circus paid a $16,000 fine to settle an April 2015 complaint.

The complaint said in 2014 that Carson & Barnes elephants working in another circus were spooked by a crowd reaction, broke away and ended up in a parking lot where vehicles were parked. One elephant that ran between two trailers suffered scrapes and cuts; another had superficial lacerations, the report said. The complaint also alleged that three weeks later elephant handlers improperly watered the animals.

Garden Bros Circus performs 200 shows a year, Schlake said. The circus had four shows scheduled in Raleigh Tuesday and today. After Greenville, the circus is scheduled to perform in Kenansville on Friday, Norfolk, Va., on Saturday and Hampton, Va., on Sunday.

Since Ringling Brothers owners announced last year the circus would give its last performance on May 21, Schlake said they are seeing an increased number of circus goers, especially older adults bringing grandchildren.

A spokeswoman for Chancellor Cecil Staton said as of Monday his office had received six protest emails. The university's athletics department oversees the leasing of athletic facilities to outside organizations. J.J. McLamb, associate athletics director for internal operations, asked for questions to be sent to him by email. He had not responded by Tuesday afternoon.  

Blackburn said how many or how few protest messages are sent shouldn't be the focus of ECU's decision to revoke the circus' contact.

"I think the real issue is, is this the kind of entertainment that East Carolina University wants to be associated with?" Blackburn asked. "ECU works so hard to be a distinguished research university with high-class performances on campus and here this circus comes to town with all these violations, it's just not what you expect from ECU. I think the public is going to be disappointed to find out."

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.


Garden Bros Circus has performances scheduled for 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Minges Coliseum.

Tickets can be purchased online, www.gardenbroscircus.com, or over the telephone, 1-888-620-8936, until 10:30 a.m. Thursday. After that the tickets must be purchased at the circus.

Ticket prices:

$8 — child, general admission

$18 — child, ringside

$17.95 — limited adult discount, general admission

$24 — adult, general admission

$34 — adult, ringside.