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Circus Protesters Allege Animal Cruelty

Protesters come out year after year to try to persuade people not to go to the circus.

“You’re the only one who can stop it from happening.”

Lisa Qualls’s voice rang out over the loudspeaker across the street from an entrance into George Mason University’s Patriot Center, where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is currently showing. Families were pouring into the area for the Sunday afternoon performance.

“An educated consumer is Ringling Bros.’ worst enemy.”

Her calm statements are loud, but are nearly drowned out at times by a competing loudspeaker from the Patriot Center directing show attendees to come inside. Qualls invokes a website as a chant in response through the loudspeaker.

“Circuses.com. Circuses.com. Circuses.com.”

Qualls, an administrative assistant at a construction company, has been part of protests against the circus for eight years, working with various animal rights groups over time. She was a founding member of Compassion for Animals. Today, she’s here for herself.

“[I’m here] because the animals can’t speak for themselves,” Qualls said. “We are the only ones who can do it. Every voice matters.”

A mother and daughter protest group stand on another corner nearby, holding up signs and passing out pamphlets. Diana Martin protested circuses before her daughter Katherine was born, and even when her daughter and son were in the stroller, but this is the first time she’s protested in years.

“[Protesting] is not fun to do,” Diana said. “It’s so depressing.”

Eleven-year-old Katherine Martin did her own research and decided she wanted to take action.

“I’ve heard of the circus animal cruelty and I wanted to stop it,” Katherine said.

Children often stare wide-eyed at the protest signs as they pass by, seeing the animals but not comprehending the words that say, “Ringling Beats Animals,” “Caged for Life” and “Elephants Never Forget,” set to pictures of animals in cages and alleged mistreatment of elephants.

“Lots of those younger kids are learning to read still,” Katherine said. “They’ll stare at the poster and go, ‘oh it’s a lion.’ It’s frustrating really.”

Diana expressed sadness at the alleged mistreatment of circus animals she believes is occurring behind the scenes.

“I wish it weren’t true,” Diana said. “I’d love to be in denial. It’s not pleasant to think about.”

Many of the protesters share stories about circus attendees saying glib comments, getting angry, cursing, or more often, just ignoring them.

“Some people get angry because there are little kids here and the pictures can be quite disturbing,” said George Mason University freshman Wynne Bowman, a member of Mason’s Animal Rights Collective.

The protesters’ signs had pictures of alleged elephant training sessions and various animals in cages.

“They don’t want their children to see [the protest signs],” Qualls said. “If their children see it and get upset, they won’t go [into the circus]. They have to explain it to them so they’ll usually lie to them.”

Mason senior Ramiz Andoni, who came to protest the circus for the first time with his fiancé, said “Enjoy watching elephants getting tortured” a few times to attendees who ignored his attempts to give them pamphlets. One woman retorted, “They don’t look like they’re being tortured.” Some of the other protesters expressed dislike for Andoni’s methods, saying that his confrontational style could actually cause damage to their cause.

One man cursed at the protesters while passing them by with his family.

Others react more kindly. One father, arms full of his two young daughters, still reached for a pamphlet, saying, “I might disagree with you but I’m still glad y’all are here.”

“Mostly people just take the leaflet and don’t say anything,” said Tony Clarke of Compassion for Animals. “We hope they’ll take it home and read it later on after they ‘enjoy the show.’”

“Every time we do this we reach somebody,” Qualls said.

“In one out of 10 people it might make a difference,” Diana said.

More protesters came out around 7 p.m. Sunday as the afternoon performance let out – about ten of them lined up along the road out of the parking lot. One man brought a TV screen on top of long pole, playing a video of alleged elephant training sessions with a voiceover and subtitles for people driving by.

“People are a little bit more accepting afterward,” Clarke said. He speculated that after the show is over, attendees feel that they have received their money’s worth and are more open to discussion. Several workers at the Patriot Center came over to speak to the protesters after the show.

“The best thing that people can do is to not go to circuses with animals and choose other forms of entertainment,” computer programmer and Compassion for Animals member Gary Loewenthal said.

Janice Aria, the Director of Animal Stewardship at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, said the animal abuse allegations are false.

"The idea of overpowering an elephant is preposterous," Aria said. "They’re extremely smart and it’s beautiful to see how much they want to please you. They really love the treats—they’re very food motivated—and that makes forming the bond a pretty easy process. But you have to make it viable: To imply that people who have spent their lives doing this would do it for anything other than for the privilege of that bond is really insulting."

The schedule of future protests against the circus can be found on the events page ofCompassion4Animals.com. The protesters’ pamphlets directed circus attendees to visit circuses.com,RinglingBeatsAnimals.com and idausa.org for more information on the alleged mistreatment of animals.

Aria answered numerous other allegations made by protesters - Burke Patch will be running a piece outlining the charges and her answers tomorrow.

Lois April 20, 2011 at 03:57 PM
Imagine what the lives of the elephants and tigers are like. They are packed onto a train and transported to the next event. They are large and potentially dangerous; the elephants are chained, the tigers pace in small cages. They rehearse, they perform, they are chained or caged. They are put back in a small train car where they stand in their excrement. Day after day, week after week, month after month. There is nothing natural and vert little pleasure in this life. Think about it. It's simply not just!
Lisa Qualls April 20, 2011 at 04:01 PM
Rachael, thank you so much for reporting on this issue. It is so important for people to understand that circuses have been in business for so long and they have perfected their lies to trick people into spending their money. I would love to see a day when all circuses stop forcing animals to perform, and employ willing human entertainers instead. I am very confident that everything I say about the circus is true. My sister-in-law once met a clown at a child's birthday party. In conversation he revealed to her that he used to work for Ringling. My sister-in-law told him that I protest circuses, and he told her, "Well, now that I no longer work for them, I can tell you that everything the protesters say is true". I currently work with someone who used to be an accountant for Ringling and he confirmed that the animals are abused. While protesting we often have people approach us to inform us that they used to work for an arena and saw the animals being abused. There are some states and localities in the US that have banned traveling acts, and many other countries have, too. I long for a day when we are so enlightened that all animals are free from all human exploitation everywhere.
Meredith April 20, 2011 at 04:08 PM
I wanted to thank you for covering the circus protests that have been occuring over the past week and a half at George Mason University. For most people, protesting is not the most fun form of activism, but as Lisa Qualls is quoted above, the animals can't speak for themselves so someone has to do it. Thankfully there are dedicated people out there who try to bring the truth out in the open. Unfortunately, they are no match for Ringling Bros. as they have the resources to advertise on TV, radio, etc... and show the circus in a positive light, when really there are countless accounts of abuse and neglect that have been cited by former Ringling employees and documented in undercover video footage. Regardless of what Ms. Aria says about the way animals are treated, one can't argue the fact that these animals are not being raised in their natural environment. They travel for months at a time and are kept in small cages or confined spaces, which in my opinon, is abuse in and of itself. If Ringling Bros. really loved these animals, they would not use them as entertainment. People who really care about animals understand that they are not ours to use and abuse as we wish. For ten fast facts about animals in the circus, visit http://www.bornfreeusa.org/facts.php?p=431&more=1 or www.circuses.com for undercover footage and testimony.
Christine Lines April 20, 2011 at 05:14 PM
Thanks for the great article!
Victoria Minkov April 20, 2011 at 05:18 PM
Great job, ladies! And thank you for all you do!
Gary April 20, 2011 at 05:30 PM
According to a number of ex-trainers and whistleboower testimony, Ringling overpowers their conscripted animals with sharp hooks, ropes, whips, and violence. Elephants do not want to balance on their hind legs, night after night, on command, for a piece of food. That's utter nonsense. Ringling "trainers" brandish their weapons during shows to make the animals act out of fear, and they sometimes reinforce the fear between shows by striking the animals in their most vulnerable spots and making them cry out in pain, as this recent video shows: https://secure.peta.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=2359 Some countries and municipaltites have banned anmal circues on account of this cruelty, and this trend is likely to continue. Elephants in the wild stay with their mothers and herds for many years. Ringling breaks this powerful bond. Elephants walk for fun and exercise several miles a day, sometimes much more, when given a chance. They are denied this and all semblance of a normal life when forced to perform for decades in the circus. Circuses.com documents Ringling's many Animal Welfare Act violations and the numerous animal deaths at their hands. Remember, P.T. Barnum allegedly said "There's a sucker born every minute." Don't be bamboozled by Ringling's well-rehearsed lies.
Holly Sternberg April 21, 2011 at 01:23 AM
In addition to forcing animals to endure confinement and beatings that would be considered cruel and unusual punishment for human prisoners, circuses teach children that it's OK for humans to take beautiful wild animals out of their natural habitats, away from their families, stick them on trains, and make them perform stupid pet tricks in front of thousands of members of another species (us) day after day, year after year, for their entire lives. Earth Day is this Friday. These animals are part of nature. They need our protection, not our exploitation. Celebrate Earth Day by resolving to go only to circuses that don't involve animals, or to some other form of entertainment. The time when people would go to Africa and snatch a wild animal and bring him back for the oohs and ahhs of a staring crowd should be long OVER by now. Watch them on TV. Take a trip to Africa or Asia. Don't drag them to DC, Fairfax, Baltimore, and other cities. Watch the undercover videos and you'll see that this abuse is real. People who care about animals unfortunately do not need to invent stories of abuse, as some people imagine. The abuse is out there every day. It's just hidden from the public.

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