By Jack Howland
As a row of Ringling Bros. elephants finished a hefty brunch outside The Broadmoor World Arena, 8-year-old Talon Baleria was downtown holding a picture of the animal in a more constrained position. Its legs were tied with rope at both ends, trunk pulled back by a trainer's hands, eyes scrunched.
The caption: Elephants Never Forget.
Talon said he made up his mind about the traveling circus nearly a year earlier after witnessing the prominent use of whips on the animals he adores.
"Seeing the animals last year made me feel like they were hurt and sad," he said alongside his mother and 6-year-old sister. "Elephants should be in the wild."
Members from PETA organized a protest in partnership with the Pikes Peak Animal Rights Team and Vegan Society of Colorado Springs during the tail end of the circus' "elephant brunch" for military families. The demonstration was in part a response to Ringling Bros.' announcement in early March that elephant acts will be phased out by 2018.
The self-imposed deadline was made to appease customers, but protesters say three years isn't soon enough. Ringling Bros. says claims that it engages in animal abuse are false and that the circus has a "lifelong commitment" to its elephants.
On Thursday, about 20 people brandished signs from PETA calling for the end of elephant abuse, with messages such as "The Slave Trade Is Alive and Well" and "Elephants Are Beaten." Sporadic honks and hollers from passing cars urged on protesters.
Matt Bruce, a campaigner with PETA who organizes demonstrations around the country, said years of undercover investigations and whistleblowers have provided damning examples of cruelty toward animals. Grainy snapshots of baby elephants bound in chains decorate the nonprofit's webpage, "Ringling Bros. Beats Animals."
Representatives from PETA say the problem begins in Asia, where elephants are stripped from the wilderness, put into box cars and brought to the circus' Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. The animals' days of training are usually made up of 23 hours strapped to a concrete floor, Bruce said, where a tool resembling a fireplace poker called a bullhook is used to move them. He contends trainers strike elephants in sensitive areas such as their eyes, legs or mouth with the prong.
Lax use of such tools creates an environment where elephants are forced to perform under threat of punishment, he said. His company estimates 32 elephants have died at the hands of the Ringling Bros. since 1992 from various causes. The ongoing national demonstrations, though, have shown Bruce that even adamant circus-goers can sympathize with the photos. In one instance, outside of a show in Albany, N.Y., a woman approached the protesters thinking they were handing out discounted tickets. When she read the enclosed information, tears welled up in her eyes.
"We've seen fewer and fewer people coming to the circus; even Ringling is downsizing in cities to smaller arenas because they don't have the draw they once did," he said. "That's because people are finding out about the cruelty that happens behind the scenes."
But Stephen Payne, senior vice president for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., said protests like those in Colorado Springs are driven by unsubstantiated claims. PETA is nothing more than a radical group in his eyes, pushing propaganda that advances its agenda. Members make the mistake of choosing "animal rights" over "animal welfare," he said.
Although he admits some elephants have died while under their care, he said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not found a problem with the traveling circus. The company also has an on-call veterinarian in every city it visits, as well as a team of trainers that travel with the elephants each step of the way. In the wild, he said, many would be alone and the object of hunters.
So why phase out elephant acts in the circus? He said the mounting pressure from groups such as PETA has led to anti-circus legislature in certain cities that has made the Ringling Bros. business model suffer.
"Rather than playing legislative whack-a-mole, we decided to take the resources spent there and invest them in the Center for Elephant Conservation," he said. "We have a lifelong commitment to these elephants.
"I know I'm probably not going to change protester's opinions," he continued, "but they're not going to change mine."
Alison Mercer, a member of the Vegan Society present at Thursday's protest, said people don't need to listen to Payne or herself. If people want to know about Ringling Bros.' treatment of performance elephants, the information is readily available.
"Whenever people say activists are too extreme or don't know what they're talking about, we tell them to do the research themselves," she said. "That's why we're all here today."