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Clowns and Complaints


There’s an elephant in the room. And it’s getting beaten with a bullhook.
This weekend, Cole Bros. Circus will bring the bigtop to Pensacola’s Interstate Fairgrounds. Along with the clowns and cotton candy, the circus also boasts a complaint filed by the United States Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act.
“Animal abuse has no place in family entertainment,” said Carney Anne Chester, legal counsel with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which brings numerous animal cruelty issues to the USDA’s attention each year.
In August, the federal agency announced it had filed a complaint against Cole Bros. in regard to the treatment of its elephants. Many of the charges listed in the complaint surround a pair of elephants named Tina and Jewel, which are no longer in the circus.
“One of the elephant’s spines were protruding,” Chester said. “They were critically emaciated.”
The USDA’s complaint deals primarily with improper-care issues. But there are also some more graphic aspects of the agency’s list of complaints: “ … an elephant (Boo) was observed to have excessive dead skin, urine staining and urine scalding … numerous flaps of skin with trapped debris, multiple wounds draining yellowish exudate inside the left ear canal …”
The acts detailed in these complaints are several years old. Mostly from 2006 and 2007.
“The trouble with Cole Bros. Circus is they no longer have an active USDA animal exhibitor license,” said Dave Sax, USDA spokesman. “Now, that doesn’t mean that what you’re seeing is illegal.”
Saxon explained that the circus now contracts out its animal acts; it’s been that way since 2008. So, the agency no longer deals with Cole Bros. directly, but rather with a third party that works with the circus. Thus, Cole Bros. is no longer officially responsible for the animals used in its shows.
“The circus business is very unique,” Sax said.
Chester said that the third parties have no better record. She pointed to the Hawthorn Corporation — which the USDA cited in 2003 — and Carson and Barnes, which has also seen abuse allegations.
“It has been caught on undercover video — beating elephants excessively,” Chester said of the latter, adding that she knew of reports of handlers being told to beat the animals “until they scream” in order to instill fear and better ensure the desired performance.
Cole Bros. Circus did not return calls for comment.
“There’s no neutral ground on animals, people have very strong feelings,” said Saxon, adding that the agency does receive reports of abuse from circus operations and follows up on each one in an effort to ensure proper care is being given; but doesn’t delve into politics. “USDA kinda doesn’t take an ideological stance on what we regulate.”
Chester said she hoped the public would reject the notion of using animals as a form of entertainment, calling their circus performances “unnatural acts.”
“People don’t like seeing animals being abused,” she said.
Cole Bros. Circus is in town from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2.