Perhaps not since the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944--in which more than 150 people were burned alive in a mammoth big-top blaze--has Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus received so much scrutiny.
Seems these days its cadre of clowns and trapeze artists can't roll into town without animal-rights advocates in tow.
As 'The Greatest Show on Earth' made its annual stop here, Aug. 8 through 12, members of San Diego Animal Advocates and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals descended on the San Diego Sports Arena to denounce alleged abuse of elephants and other animals. While some activists were content leafleting passerby, in true martyr fashion other activists strapped 'body screens' to their chests--portable monitors displaying explosive footage of animal cruelty.
The most alarming scene, captured by an incognito PETA investigator, involved Tim Frisco, an elephant trainer for Carson & Barnes Circus. Brandishing a steel-tipped bull hook, Frisco demonstrated to a fledgling trainer how to get the 10,000-pound creatures to perform.
'Don't touch 'em. Hurt 'em!' Frisco tells the trainer. 'Make 'em scream! ... When he fucks around too much, you fucking sink that hook and give it everything you got.'
PETA's lead circus monitor, Jason Bayless, follows the show across the country, organizing demonstrations. If the film clips don't do the trick, Bayless lets people inspect his own ominous bull hook.
Standing in front of a minivan with 'Ringling Beats Elephants' plastered on its sides, Bayless demonstrated the sharp, metallic tip. Ringling and other circuses paint the tips of the hooks black, he said, making the pain-inducing points invisible to children and adults in most arena seats.
Brandishing a bull hook during Ringling's San Diego stop was Joe Frisco Jr., Tim Frisco's brother. 'They were both trained by their father, an ex-Ringling employee,' Bayless said. 'All three of them are highly aggressive when it comes to handling of the elephants.'
Another video playing on PETA screens featured Ringling trainer Alex Vargas, also present in San Diego. During a stop in Austin, Texas, last year, Vargas is seen hooking Tonka the elephant on the underside of its ear. The camera zooms in to show a pixilated red spot, where Vargas' allegedly drew blood.
'Tonka was trying to get some leaves from a tree,' Bayless said. 'That's when you saw Alex come up behind that ear, and actually make her stumble, he hit her so hard.'
Ringling Bros. spokesperson Andy Perez acknowledged the incident, though he questions whether PETA doctored the footage.
'What are they shooting? Digital?' Perez asked with laugh. 'That's not something that can happen.... We do not tolerate any abuse of any elephant management tool.... It's simply an extension of the trainers' arm, like the leash and collar for a dog, a bit and a rein for a horse.' Perez said the incident 'could have happened with a branch, which is something elephants play with.'
The elephants in Ringling shows are not performing tricks, Perez maintained, but modeling 'natural behaviors' like those they exhibit in the wild. 'That could be anything from standing on their head,' Perez said. 'They sit on their butts; they do all sorts of things. They're playful animals.'
Petter Granli, an elephant behavior expert with the organization ElephantVoices, said elephants do not stand on their heads in the wild.
'Wild elephants can do a lot of things that [are] fun to watch,' Granli said. 'They never stand on their heads, though, hold on to each others tails or do other tricks that one often see in circuses.... [And] it's certainly not natural for elephants to sit on their butts.'
Cynthia Moss, a research director with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, Africa, considered by some to be the world's foremost elephant expert, agreed. 'Sometimes in play they may kneel down and touch the ground, but not stand on their heads,' she said. 'Only when they're playing would they possibly sit down, but only for a few seconds.'
At the Old Town train station the evening of Aug. 12, Bayless noted how the elephants, waiting to board Ringling Bros.' train, swayed back and forth on shaky legs. Moss said this behavior could indicate boredom or distress. 'It makes me quite angry when people say this is natural behavior in the wild,' Moss said. 'They shouldn't be in circuses.'
Perez praised Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, for establishing its Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida--something touted during performances in Ringling's shows. About 20 elephants have been born at the 200-acre reserve during the past 11 years, Perez said.
'The activist groups have their agenda... complete separation of animals and humans,' Perez said. 'We have a different philosophy. We believe that exposing people to animals makes them care about those animals and our environment more.'
However, elephants are social animals and don't do well in captivity, most experts agree, and zoos across the country are gradually ridding themselves of their elephant populations.
Two of the 10 elephants performing in San Diego this month, Tonka and Luna, are not permitted to march through the streets, and are instead trucked to and from the train.
'What they told the [L.A. Police Department] and other media was that they're too unpredictable to walk,' Bayless said. 'They're in captivity for so long and they're hit so many times that they, for lack of a better term, go crazy. That's when they go on a rampage. We're trying to get the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] to pull them from the road.'
Perez said Tonka and Luna aren't a threat.
'They're like kids,' he said. 'They like to play, and they don't necessarily want to follow in line.... We feel that you go with what the animal wants.'
Does Ringling, the once-beloved institution, under siege and facing increased competition from flashier, non-animal productions like Cirque du Soleil, see a day when it might divest itself of its elephant population?
'Our audience surveys tell us more than 80 percent of people that come to shows make the decision to come because of the Asian elephants,' Perez said. 'Absolutely not.'