NEWS- Trumpeting torture: PETA decries circus abuse

Entertainment or animal torture? That's the debate raging between animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Carson & Barnes Circus, which rolls into town on September 30 for two days of shows at the Bagby Showgrounds off High Street.

In a letter sent to Mayor David Brown and city councilors on September 25, PETA claims Carson & Barnes essentially tortures its animals during training and travel by beating them and chaining their legs. As alleged proof, the group also sent a copy of a disturbing video taken, they say, by an undercover PETA agent working for Carson & Barnes in 1999.

The video shows a man who PETA claims was Carson & Barnes' then-animal care director attacking elephants with metal bullhooks and what appears to be an electric prod. It also depicts the director instructing others to dig their bullhooks into the elephants' hide and "make 'em scream." They scream.

That grainy video can be seen on a PETA sponsored website,

But Carson & Barnes spokesperson Jennifer Johnson claims the video is essentially propaganda, "artfully done" by splicing together different occasions in order to maximize its impact. The animals in Carson & Barnes circus are well cared for, Johnson insists, adding that PETA's real agenda is to keep animals out of the circus, no matter how they're treated.

"They're damaging a legitimate business," she says.

Johnson, who says she completed her master's thesis on the interaction between circus animals and their trainers, says she has consulted for several other circuses, including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Circuses are "an American tradition," she says. "They educate about the respect between humans and animals and how we can work together for everyone's benefit."

PETA presents Carson & Barnes as "really sinister, like we all creep around and do these horrible things," says Johnson. "We don't."

In the video, the trainer is coaching some underlings to hit the animals with "everything you've got" and berating the trainees with an expletive-laced monologue.

"I'll kick the sh*t out of you, you f**king pr*ck." Whether the recipient of that scolding is man or elephant is not immediately clear, but in other rants, it is.

"If you're scared to hurt 'em," the man tells the trainees, "don't come in the barn. When you hear 'em screaming, then you know you've got their attention."

However, Johnson contends that elephants, like all animals, "don't work well if they're in an abusive environment." Learning elaborate tricks, such as balancing on stools and walking backwards, is a "long slow process through respect and reinforcement."

As for PETA's assertion that the animals have their legs bound so they can't move, Johnson again objects to the characterization. Elephants' legs are tied only during travel "for their own safety," she says. "You wouldn't let your child ride without a car seat, would you?" she asks.

Once the elephants have been unloaded, Johnson says, they are untied and allowed to walk in enclosures under tents with other elephants. And four months out of the year, Johnson says, the elephants go to a ranch in Oklahoma where they have hundreds of acres to roam.

Johnson denies that any elephant trainer with Carson & Barnes uses electric prods, pointing out that they're illegal. And as for "bullhooks," Johnson says her trainers do use them, but not in the way PETA presents.

"They're actually called an ankus," Johnson says, explaining the long poles with hooks on the end have been "a part of animal husbandry for thousands of years and are used as a guide, not to inflict pain."

PETA activist Lisa Wathne, however, offers an affadavit signed by the undercover agent and given to the USDA on February 21, 2002 that claims that in addition to the treatment revealed on the video, Carson & Barnes trainers brutally beat elephants during "trunk washing," which involves squirting saline up elephants' trunks to test them for tuberculosis.

"When she refused to hand over her trunk, Joe took his bullhook and, using it like a baseball bat, proceeded to hit her between the eyes four times," the affadavit states. The undercover agent's name has been redacted by the USDA, says Wathne, who declines to identify him because he is still working undercover for PETA. After detailing the brutal beatings of several elephants with bullhooks, the agent describes the use of the electric prod, known as a 'hotshot."

A trainer "proceeded to shock her with the hotshot numerous times," the agent states. "I counted at least 27 shocks. He shocked her left hind leg, her left front leg, her face and her tongue." During the beatings, the agent states, the chained elephants trumpeted, urinated, and defecated. The agent states the injuries inflicted were not an isolated incident. The agent says he routinely washed and squeezed pus from elephants' infected "hook boils."

As a result of that affidavit, Carson & Barnes paid the USDA a fine of $400. USDA spokesperson Jim Rogers says the fine was a "stipulation," which is one step below a violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

"We basically say, 'You promise to stop doing whatever [you're doing] and pay the fine, and we'll stop our investigation." Rogers says Carson & Barnes has no violations on its record. Johnson claims the affadavit was a lie put forth by PETA to further its mission of closing down all businesses that use animals in any way.

If elephants were being abused and had open wounds like those PETA describes, says Johnson, it would be obvious to USDA inspectors and to people coming to the circus. 

"We invite people to come see for themselves," she says.

Wathne, however, points out that the video also shows the trainer instructing others that he can't use the rough tactics "in front of 10,000 people."

Wathne says she hopes Charlottesville, which passed a pre-war resolution against the invasion of Iraq, will pass an ordinance prohibiting circuses and other acts that use animals from coming to town– including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which is scheduled for shows at the John Paul Jones Arena from December 6 to 10.

Mayor Brown declined comment Tuesday, September 26, saying he had not seen PETA's letter or video. 

Johnson, however, says she hopes people will come see for themselves rather than simply take PETA at their word.

"Carson & Barnes has been in the family for 70 years," says Johnson. "We are proud of our record of animal care, and whatever PETA tells you about us is a lie."

Nostalgic entertainment or animal cruelty? The debate rages this weekend as the Carson & Barnes Circus comes to town.