By Merle Exit
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gave an unfriendly welcome to the UniverSoul Circus last Friday on its opening night in Jamaica.
PETA protesters greeted the crowd as patrons entered the gates at Roy Wilkins Park to encourage them to boycott the circus for its treatment of animals.
One protester dressed up in an elephant costume with a face of tears and a sign that read “UniverSoul: End Cruel Acts to Animals.”
John Di Leonardo, an anthrozoologist and president of Long Island Orchestrating for Nature who manages PETA, stood beside the “elephant” holding a bullhook, a sharp heavy baton with a hook used to train the animal.
“I have seen past shows where the elephants are doing cruel tricks. These instruments are used to intimidate and threaten the animal into performing,” Di Leonardo said. “A lot of these tricks that elephants do in the circus are confusing to them and many times painful.”
UniverSoul declined to comment on PETA’s allegations, instead relaying its Animal Rights Policy Statement.
“The UniverSoul Circus believes that all animals are entitled to humane treatment and should never be mistreated or abused in any way. All our animal vendors are subject to regulation by federal, state, and local animal welfare authorities. We care about the well-being of each of the animals that travels with and performs in our shows, and we regard all of them as valued members of our performing cast delivering high quality, family friendly entertainment that brings joy, happiness and laughter to audiences around the world.”
Di Leonardo said that one of the leading causes of death for elephants are foot infections, which could occur when elephants are unable to roam around, instead rocking back and forth, as well as standing on their hind legs and lying in unnatural positions often used in circuses.
You won’t see trainer Larry Carden actually applying the bull hook to the elephant’s body or view the holes in their ears, but Di Leonardo said that just the sight of the bullhook can trigger the fear of what comes from not being obedient.
“You may notice that when they set up a photo shoot for the kids to have their picture taken with the elephant, Carden carries the bull hook but tends to keep his hand over the hook so that it is not in the public’s view. They want to disguise it and make it look as if it is a baton just used for ‘show’.”
Di Leonardo said that Carden was once arrested for allegedly shoving the bull hook into the mouth of an elephant when she wouldn’t walk off the stage.
He also talked about the tigers that are seen spinning in their cages.
“Although the tigers are not presently touring in New York, they are in Florida. Children would run kicking and screaming if they knew how these animals were threatened with bullhooks and whips,” he said. “Parents would never bring them to the circus if they knew about the history of these exotic animals that have attacked their trainers and escaped from the circus.”
Di Leonardo said UniverSoul has had several zebra escapes in recent years.
“There are definitely public safety violations, in addition to animal welfare violations that we are concerned with.”
He said PETA is not protesting the circus itself, just UniverSoul’s alleged treatment of the animals.
“We are encouraging UniverSoul to concentrate on their willing human performers who can retire when they want to. They could have a phenomenal show if they just took out the animals and we would support it,” he said. “The future is animal-free.”
Asked for comment about Peta’s complaint about UniverSoul, the ASPCA issued a general statement saying it “rejects the claim that there is educational value in seeing wild animals perform unnatural or dangerous behaviors, as well as the claim that large, wild animals such as elephants, bears, lions and tigers can be trained without cruelty to perform these behaviors.” It contended that many of these animals suffer from extended confinement and being on the road.
Di Leonardo said PETA will continue to protest outside UniverSoul performances.
The show is heading to Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field next month.