Minneapolis may become ringleader in circus animal protection

Circus in Chicago
An elephant from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus exits a train car in Chicago, as the circus prepares for a performance. Circus critics say the animals have inadequate space and ventilation as they travel across the country in trains.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Circuses give people a chance to see some of nature's most dangerous and exotic creatures transformed into performing pets. Fierce jungle cats leap through rings of fire at the behest of a lone whip-toting human being. Four-ton elephants defy gravity as they raise themselves onto their hind legs. But some say this form of entertainment comes at a high price.

There are video tapes that have caught animal training sessions. In one, a trainer strikes an elephant on its legs with some sort of pole. He tells an observer that to train an elephant, you have to "make them scream."

According to Christine Coughlin, a volunteer with an organization called Circus Reform Yes, the undercover video is from the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and it contains graphic footage - including newstape of a rampaging elephant who kills its trainer and is later shot dead in the street.

Elephants perform
Circus artists and their elephants perform in Munich in April 2006. Animal rights activists maintain that circus animals are subject to cruel treatment as they are trained to perform.

"All of the training footage is stuff that's been caught on undercover video. And the reason we know about it is that people in the circus industry have come forward to share it with us," Coughlin says.

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Coughlin says the latter example is extreme but she believes that abuse during training and long hours of confinement are more common experiences for circus animals. Coughlin says Minneapolis can send an important message by banning wild animal circuses altogether.

"What we're doing is saying our city does not participate in the inhumane treatment of animals," she says, "and that our city doesn't profit from it."

Several months ago Circus Reform Yes took their concerns to city officials where they received a sympathetic ear from councilmembers Ralph Remington and Cam Gordon. The two have co-authored an ordinance that amends the city's existing law about wild and ferocious animals. Under the current law nobody can keep such creatures in the city unless they get a permit. The Gordon/Remington amendment would prohibit circuses from getting that permit.

Gordon says as a kid he was troubled by the way the animals were treated in circuses. He says the act of a lion jumping through a burning hoop is inherently abusive. But Gordon says he's also concerned about the safety of people who attend circuses.

"There's been a number of incidents where elephants or other wild animals have attacked and harmed and even killed both workers who are working with the animals and people in the audience who've come to see the animals," Gordon says.

"There's been more people hurt by rollercoasters in the last 10 years than there has been by elephants. Nobody wants to ban rollercoasters."

Injuries and deaths from circus animal attacks are rare. The USDA, which regulates wild animal circuses, doesn't keep statistics. But a spokesperson told MPR that she couldn't remember the last time a circus animal attack was reported. That means the chances of someone in Minneapolis being injured by a circus animal are already scarce, considering there's only one animal circus which comes through town each year - the Shrine Circus.

The website of an animal welfare advocacy group called the Animal Protection Institute contains an estimate. They say more than 100 human injuries and casualties have been caused by circus animals in the U.S. and Canada since 1990.

But banning circuses to prevent the possibility of human injuries doesn't make sense to some people.

"There's been more people hurt by rollercoasters in the last 10 years than there has been by elephants. Nobody wants to ban rollercoasters," says Minneapolis police Sgt. Timothy Davison. He may not be an expert on rollercoasters, but does know a thing or two about elephants. Before he became a cop, Davison was an elephant trainer and caregiver. Davison worked regularly with the Shrine Circus and disputes the contention by activists who charge that circus animals are routinely mistreated.

In particular he's astounded to hear activists say that elephants get stressed out from being confined in trucks and trains as they travel.

"Absolutely astounded that they can say this and I wonder where they get their information," Davison says. "Because me, being there full-time, living and sleeping with my animals, literally, I never saw this."

The proposed circus animal ban will face opposition on the council. Councilmembers Paul Ostrow and Betsy Hodges are pushing a substitute ordinance that forgoes an all-out ban in favor of tighter restrictions for circus operators. They say that will do more to help conditions for circus animals.