By Paula J. Owen
WORCESTER — Those with tickets to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus during Columbus Day weekend got a different glimpse of elephants than is seen at the circus, as over two dozen protesters from animal-advocacy groups held up large photos of the world's largest land animal shackled in chains and being struck with bull hooks.
"This is no life for the wild animals," said Sheryl Becker, director of Western Mass. Animal Rights Advocates. Protesters from Ms. Becker's group and also from Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition based in Holden said they were protesting to help raise awareness and educate people on Ringling's alleged inhumane treatment of the elephants.
"They are on the road 24-7, not on stage," Ms. Becker said. "They are confined to tiny spaces and forced to perform unnatural behaviors with bull hooks and stun guns. They are basically torturing the animals for human entertainment."
She said most people are not aware of how the elephants are treated and they hope to open their eyes with the protests and make people think before they go in.
"The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) has fined Ringling countless times for not meeting minimum standards under the Animal Welfare Act," she said. "But the public is not told about it. We are the ones doing that work."
In 2011, the USDA and Feld Entertainment Inc., doing business as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, reached a settlement agreement in which Feld paid a civil penalty of $270,000 for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act dating from June 2007 to August 2011 — the largest penalty assessed against an animal exhibitor under the AWA.
The USDA said the settlement sent a direct message to the public and to those who exhibit animals that the agency will take all necessary steps to protect animals regulated under the act.
However, Ryan J. Henning, Ringling's assistant animal superintendent and assistant elephant manager, said all the circus animals are treated well and handlers use only rewards to get them to exhibit desired behaviors.
"We do use guides that are an extension of our arm," he said. "Extremists call them bull hooks. It doesn't hurt them at all. It is for the safety of the animals, trainers and public."
Mr. Henning said an animal care team of around 60 people take care of the animals and the animals are allowed to exercise regularly.
"They receive plenty of exercise on a daily basis and socialization with the handlers and trainers," he said.
At an open house held before each show, people are welcome to visit the animals and ask handlers questions, Mr. Henning said.
Cecile J. Guilbault, a protestor from Wendell with WMARA, said the group is not against the circus, just against their use of animals.
"For me it is a moral issue," she said. "We don't have the right to force these animals to perform. They spend hours in cages before they are allowed to go out and it is extremely cruel. A lot of zoos and other animal exhibitors are realizing, especially for the elephants, that it is just not a good environment for them and they are sending them to sanctuaries."