Activists look to ban animal circuses

Cole Bros. defends use of wild animals

Elephant trainer John Walker (above) before a Cole Bros. Circus show last month in Raleigh, N.C. At left, a poodle on the job for Cole Bros. Elephant trainer John Walker (above) before a Cole Bros. Circus show last month in Raleigh, N.C. At left, a poodle on the job for Cole Bros. (Associated Press)
By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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The circus is coming to town, maybe for the last time, if activists get their wish.

Animal welfare activists hope to ban wild-animal circuses in Marshfield, home of the Marshfield Fairgrounds, where Cole Bros. Circus of Florida is scheduled to perform June 20-21. Officers of the South Shore Humane Society and a handful of area residents decried the use of wild animals in circuses at a hearing earlier this month for Cole Bros.’ annual entertainment license.

The South Shore Humane Society sends packages of information to local authorities whenever a circus license comes up, according to organization president Mary Connolly, who said a number of communities in the Boston area have some form of circus ban.

“The South Shore Humane Society will do everything we can to get other towns to realize what a bad idea this is,’’ Connolly said.

Two people who spoke against circuses at the hearing before Marshfield selectmen, cousins Matthew Sprague of Marshfield and Meredith Sprague of Kingston, said after the session that they were interested in starting petitions in their hometowns. Later, though, they indicated they might not be ready to take on the task at this time.

“We have both been busy, but we’re definitely still interested in getting the story out there,’’ Matthew Sprague said in an e-mail.

Talk of sending the matter to Town Meeting started when John Hall, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said that voters, not selectmen, should address the debate on animal cruelty in circuses. The board approved the license by a vote of 3-0.

Town Administrator Rocco Longo said he would work with any resident who wants to propose a petition article for a special Town Meeting.

During the hearing, debate touched on Cole Bros.’ record of animal treatment and whether keeping and training wild animals is inherently cruel.

Connolly alleged that the US Department of Agriculture has “a laundry list of violations’’ on record for Cole Bros. Circus. However, USDA spokesman David Sacks said the circus does not carry a USDA license because it no longer owns its animals, and the agency regulates animals, not circuses.

In the past few years, Cole Bros. did not renew its animal licenses, contracting with outside entities instead. But in 2006, when the circus did own animals, it sold two elephants in a manner that violated the law.

At the selectmen’s meeting, a booking agent for Cole Bros. read a prepared statement in which the company admitted that Cole Bros. and its owner, John Pugh, each pleaded guilty on Feb. 22 to a misdemeanor violation of the Endangered Species Act. The circus sold two Asian elephants in 2006 without ensuring the buyer had the proper permits before transferring ownership, according to the statement.

The court placed Cole Bros. and Pugh on probation, fined them, and ordered Pugh to perform community service. Pugh’s fines totaled $5,200, while the circus paid an amount equal to the sale price of the elephants, according Cole Bros.

At the license hearing, Marshfield Police Captain Phillip Tavares said he was not aware of any deficiencies in animal treatment at the circus during its appearances at the Marshfield Fairgrounds. The town’s animal control officer has the right to inspect the animals’ living quarters unannounced.

Renee Storey, Cole Bros. vice president for administration, said the circus has never been found guilty of violating the Animal Welfare Act or jeopardizing animal welfare.

Whenever the Department of Agriculture does an inspection and sees anything that needs to be corrected, she said, it issues a report. Circuses can be cited for all kinds of issues, large and small. In one citation against Cole Bros., she said, the problem was a paper cup found in an animal transport trailer.

“Anyone can make an accusation and trigger an investigation or follow-up, which can then be used as a reference by activists,’’ she said.

Cole Bros. contracts out for elephants, tigers, horses, and other animals.

Animal welfare groups say that’s one way circuses avoid run-ins with authorities, and that trainers who provide animals often go by aliases to cloud their history. Trainers, however, say stage names are normal in show business.

California-based In Defense of Animals provided an electronic copy of a USDA consent decision from 2004 in which John N. Caudill Jr., John N. Caudill III, and Walker Brothers Circus Inc. admitted to various allegations. The younger Caudill goes by John Walker and John Herriott Walker, and he presents elephants for Cole Bros. Circus.

According to the document, the named parties failed to have their veterinarian provide adequate care for elephants, including one elephant that was “excessively thin with a protruding spine and hip bones’’; “failed to have a responsible, knowledgeable, and readily identifiable employee or attendant present during periods of public contact’’; and on Oct. 5, 2001, failed to handle an Asian elephant named Delhi as carefully as possible to prevent “trauma,’’ “physical harm,’’ and “unnecessary discomfort.’’

In an interview, Walker said the thin elephant was being bullied away from its food during the night by another elephant, and that Delhi had a chronic, 30-year foot infection, one that did not result from neglect but appeared incurable.

A fifth-generation trainer, Walker said he was raised to make taking care of elephants his first priority every day, even on Christmas morning. The circus has offered to take activists on the road, but they refuse, he said.

Members of the South Shore Humane Society maintain that keeping wild animals captive and forcing them to perform is ethically wrong, no matter how much the trainers dote on them.

Storey said Walker now works for a different company, Carson and Barnes Circus, which owns the elephants in Cole Bros. shows.

Sacks, the USDA spokesman, said he was not aware of any violations for Carson and Barnes, though he did not have a full enforcement history immediately available to him. Records retention goes back three years on some items, he said. Nor did he find any recent problems with the Hawthorn Corp., which owns the tigers in Cole Bros. shows.

Sacks said activists and circus people have opposite agendas, but regulators try to be objective.

“What we do at USDA is simply go down the middle and make sure the animals themselves are being handled well,’’ he said.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at