SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) - Prostestors from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals picketed the opening performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' five-day run at EnergySolutions Arena Wednesday night, claiming the circus abuses their elephants.
About 30 protestors stood outside the northeast corner of ESA, holding signs reading "Elephants Are Beaten" and "Elephants Never Forget". They handed out printed materials and people not to attend the show.
"Video footage from PETA's investigation found that these sensitive animals are beaten," Amy Meyer, a special projects coordinator, told ABC4 News. "They're whipped and they're prodded with sharp metal bullhooks."
At a promotional event earlier Wednesday, two Asian elephants were paraded before a small crowd and showered with hoses by Salt Lake City firefighters. A man dressed as a ringleader told onlookers, "two of the biggest stars on earth are right here".
Circus goer Marian Fielding from Richmond, Utah says the pachyderm performers were a big draw for her children.
"This is our first time but their biggest thing was the elephants," Fielding said. "That's what they were most excited about."
Fielding added that she assumes the elephants were not mistreated because the circus was regulated.
Nearby, one of the youngest protestors was a 6 year old boy in an elephant costume.
"This is my son Django and he has been coming to circus protests with me since he was born pretty much," Kelly Colobella said. "He is as opposed to the circus as I am, hurting animals."
Asked about the costume, Colobella said it is "Just to draw attention to the fact that they do take baby elephants away from their mothers, chain them up. That's a strategy they use to get them to do tricks."
Ringling's parent company Feld Entertainment posted this quote from Director of Animal Training Janice Aria on their website: "Ringling Bros. is committed to ensuring the absolute best for its animals and those who care for them....we trust that our customers, our employees and our industry colleagues will continue to see Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as a responsible animal steward and that we are committed to providing the very best of care for all our animals."
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined Feld Entertainment $270,000 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
"It's clear that these elephants and other animals are not being treated the way they ought to be treated," Meyer said. "They belong in the wild. They belong free. They belong with their families."
Late Wednesday night, ABC 4 received the following statement from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey regarding the protest: "Animals at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® are healthy and well cared for by a team of full time veterinarians and an animal care staff that works to ensure that the animals have an enriching and safe environment. Protesters often make false and distorted allegations about Ringling Bros.® animal care and we invite Salt Lake Area families to come see for themselves that our animals are healthy and thriving in our care."
Ringling Bros. has eight more shows scheduled at EnergySolutions Arena this week with performances at 7 pm Thursday, 3 pm and 7 pm Friday, 11 am 3 pm and 7 pm Saturday and 1:30 pm and 5:30 pm Sunday. Meyer says PETA will have protestors at each performance. Video.