By Deborah Gates
SALISBURY — Dutchess the elephant entered center circle and swallowed a loaf of bread, giving circus-goers a preview of what was to come.Was it a glimpse of a gentle giant that wants to make kids laugh, or was it a sign of a mistreated animal wanting for food, protesters asked outside the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center on Saturday.
Helen Timmons, a protestor and animal rights activist from Seaford, questioned the conditions in which animals live in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. As protesters have in past years’ performances and elsewhere in the country, they raise questions about whether animals have food withheld and whether elephants are hurt or intimidated by the stick used to train them.
Timmons was among about a dozen animal rights activists protesting out front of the venue with placards that read, “Elephants are beaten,” and “Boycott the Circus.” The protesters said they belonged to no organization, but rather were united through a belief — and evidence, they say — that animals are treated poorly.
“I protest around the world representing Americans,” said Patricia Wieja, who traveled to protest in Salisbury from Caroline County. “Animal rights groups in Europe ask for Americans to be up front because they are American shows.”
Circus officials say they treat their animals properly and have told The Daily Times in past years that protesters do not properly characterize animal treatment or past incidents that have been reported in the national media.
The protesters vowed to be on a pavement in front of the venue until the last performance at 4 p.m. Sunday. On Saturday, a few horns honked in support of the protesters and sympathizers grabbed literature describing alleged cruelty to animals.
“They’re chained, and they cage them several days while they travel — that is not good for animals,” Timmons said. “We want to make the public aware and educate people of what really goes on behind the scenes.”
Circus acts with elephants and other animals are not the only venues that draw protesters.
“I protest at the rodeo, Sea World, anywhere there are animals,” Wieja said.Protesters were not discouraged that circus-goers chose to enter the arena despite their presence and the literature they sought to hand out. Building awareness was a primary focus of the demonstration, they said.
“Any time you can influence people to think and to educate them, that is good,” Weija said. “Animals cannot speak for themselves — they need a human voice.”
Circus-goer Brandy Brady of Westover said she had no evidence of animal mistreatment.
“This is my first time taking my children to the circus, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the circus acts and the animals,” said Brady, who attended Saturday with daughters, Isabelle, 2, and Hannah, 9.
“I’m not familiar with how the animals are treated,” she said. “It would concern me if they were mistreated in some way. I trust the circus is an organization that does the right thing and treats animals fairly.”
Gary and Robbi Mann of Salisbury said solving the problem of cruelty to animals anywhere is not by boycotting the circus, but rather, working to bring about reform.
“I’m sure there must be instances of mistreatment, but the answer is not to throw away the circus,” Gary Mann said, “but rather, put in the mechanism to fix it.”
His wife wasn’t convinced the animals in Ringling Bros. are mistreated. “The circus has been an American tradition for years and years and years,” she said. “I’ve never heard of bad treatment to the animals.”