They were small in numbers, but large in spirit. As the scent of popcorn and cotton candy permeated the air near the UniverSoul Circus, now performing in Roy Wilkins Park in Jamaica, a handful of members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals held signs and handed out literature about what they consider the inhumane treatment of circus animals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has repeatedly cited UniverSoul animal exhibitors for failure to provide veterinary care, medical records and adequate space, according to the animal rights group. PETA also has video evidence of what it considers the mistreatment of UniverSoul elephants.
The “undercover footage” allegedly shows one of the circus’ exhibitors — Tim Frisco of the Carson & Barnes Circus — “viciously attacking elephants with a bullhook until they scream in pain.” On the tape he can be heard saying to other elephant trainers, “Sink the hook into them,” “Hurt ’em,” and “Make them scream.”
“I think it’s particularly horrifying what the elephants have to go through,” said PETA member Jessica Hollander of Ridgewood. “It’s just an endless atrocity. I know how sensitive and intelligent they are, so personally for me, that’s an extra sensitive subject.”
Lester Muse, who has been working as a local coordinator for UniverSoul for the last seven years, said in the time he has been with the show, he has never witnessed staffers abusing the animals.
“I have never seen any kind of cruelty, and I have been in the back where they handle them and prep them before they come out,” Muse said. “I’ve never seen them being mistreated. The animals are eating good. They are being washed down every night and I have never seen anything negative happen.”
Ashley Byrne, a senior campaigner with PETA who led the protest, said that circuses often take great care not to abuse their animals publicly.“Circuses will also do things to cover up the wounds that they inflict on elephants,” she said. “There is a gray dust that they’ll use to cover the wounds. You absolutely cannot get an animal like an elephant to perform these confusing, painful tricks without terrorizing them.”
Some of the circus patrons seemed intrigued by the PETA demonstration and stopped to take a closer look at the signs the protesters were holding. They had posters saying “UniverSoul Abuses Animals” and “Boycott the Circus.”
One placard reading “Elephants Never Forget” had a photo of a pachyderm being retrained by ropes. It is an image PETA prominently displays on its website, and the group contends it is proof that the trainers at Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus also abuse their animals, something the company denies.
One UniverSoul customer who was attending the show with her two young children, but did not give her name, said that if she saw proof of animal cruelty she would be less inclined to return.
However, for Angie Williams of Brooklyn, going to the circus is all about seeing exotic creatures. “You want to see animals,” she said. “You want to smell the elephants. When you go to a circus, you expect that.” When asked if viewing footage of the alleged circus cruelty would deter her from returning, she said “it might.”
Byrne said the protests often convince spectators to patronize animal-free circuses. She said most are “shocked” by the images and footage of cruelty and “some even start crying.”“We actually had people tear up their tickets at Ringling Brothers last week and leave,” Byrne said.
PETA member Darlene Ghents of Long Island said that she feels so strongly about animal rights, her family was a little worried when she told them she would be participating in the protest.
“My mother was like, ‘I don’t want to see you on the news trying to ride home on an elephant,’” she recalled with a laugh. “I told her if I see one being abused I just might try to do that.”
About halfway through the hour-long demonstration, police asked Byrne if she had a permit. She informed them that when she had spoken to the NYPD prior to the event she was told that she did not need one since the protest was so small. Nevertheless, the cops asked the PETA members to move away from the UniverSoul front entrance and stand outside the front gate of the park, which they did.
“Obviously, UniverSoul does not like us being here,” Byrne said.
But the move didn’t dampen their spirits and they continued to wave their signs at passing motorists.
“Animals should not be used for our entertainment,” said PETA member Emily McCoy of Manhattan, formerly of Astoria. “There are no conditions which would make it acceptable. The reason that they are performing is out of fear.”
In 2010, City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez (D-Manhattan) introduced legislation that would ban the use of exotic animals for public entertainment. The bill, which has been refered to the Health Committee, is supported by PETA as well as two Queens lawmakers — City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) and City Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights).
“The elephants, tigers and other animals used by UniverSoul have been beaten and deprived of their precious freedom for a lifetime of cheap tricks,” PETA Director Delcianna Winders said in a statement. “We’re telling parents that if their kids love animals, the last place that they should go is the circus.”