The expected arrival of the Carson and Barnes Circus in Carey this weekend has residents excited to see trained elephants, camels, hippos and other animals performing under a "big top" circus tent. Trapeze artists, clowns and other human performers will also be a part of the show.
For some residents, it's an exciting prospect, but a handful of animal rights activists are objecting. They say elephants are mistreated during training and transportation for the cross-country shows.
Ketchum resident Maya Burrell organized an email campaign to the Idaho Mountain Express accusing Carson and Barnes Circus of animal abuse. She included undercover surveillance videos of elephant training sessions shot by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and emails from elephant scientist Joyce Poole in Norway.
"Having been an expert witness in a number of circus abuse cases and having been asked to review hours and hours of videotape from circuses in South Africa, the United States, England, Norway—I think that life for an elephant in the circus is hideous," wrote Poole.
"What they are telling you is not true," Carson and Barnes promoter David Rawls said in an interview. He said the circus is "attacked" by PETA constantly and that the undercover videos were shot many years ago.
"There are bad people out there, but it doesn't mean everyone is bad. The circus took actions. I can guarantee you that. Carson and Barnes does not condone or practice cruelty to animals at all," Rawls said.
Ted Friend, Ph.D., is the leader of the animal behavior and animal well-being program at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. He and several of his college students traveled with Carson and Barnes and four other circuses over the course of two years to study elephant and tiger training and transportation methods.
"We didn't see a problem. There was nothing different than what we would do with horses or show dogs. It would be illogical to condemn circuses if you didn't also condemn kennels and horseback riding with trailers," Friend said in an interview.
Friend said the study, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, used TV cameras and other monitoring devices on trucks and trains to look at circus animal transportation and management "from an animal welfare and stress aspect."
"Traveling with a circus can be better than living in an old-style zoo. Some of the students were vegetarians and some were anti-circus. By the end, they thought it was all fine," he said.
Friend said he saw no training methods that were different than those used in training dogs. He said the animals are trained in the morning, using positive and negative reinforcement, and perform during afternoons.
"They seemed to look forward to performing," he said.
"There might still be idiots out there with elephants, but we haven't seen any in about 20 years. Activists watch them very closely. During performances, everything is open to the pubic," said Friend. "The animals are working and moving and get lots of stimulation. They try to create that in good zoos. In zoos, it's called enrichment. In circuses, it's called work."
Friend said the undercover videos were shot by a PETA member who spent two winters at the circus headquarters in Oklahoma.
"If that is all they can get after watching them closely for years, I am comforted by it," Friend said.
Rawls said the wintering area for the circus in Oklahoma is a 200-acre compound where elephants and other animals roam freely.
"We don't have any caged animals whatsoever," he said.
Carson and Barnes Circus also will perform in Blackfoot and Rupert.
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org
Carson and Barnes Circus:
When: Saturday, June 18, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sunday, June 19, at 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Where: County Fairgrounds in Carey.
Tickets: Tickets can be purchased at the gate or online at carsonbarnescircus.com.