Circus of the scars: Injuries follow Sterling & Reid

The Hook published pictures of a fantastically kitschy circus in the Photophile section of the August 29 edition along with some fairly laudatory pronouncements– "When the Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus comes to Charlottesville next year, I urge you to go. This type of circus won't be around forever."

However, some readers hope this circus really won't be around foreveror, if it is, that it will clean up its act.

One reader, Sebastian Greiman, was not only disturbed by the circus' alarming record of fines and arrests for animal cruelty, but was also smarting over his own treatment there.

The circus came to town on August 20 and 21 at the Bagby Showgrounds on High Street. Greiman, an amateur photographer, paid $20 for a ticket.

"I even opted for the $5 ringside seating," he wrote, "which turned out to be a filthy patio chair, purchased no doubt a number of years ago from a Family Dollar Store."

Things got worse when he started to adjust the settings on his Sony Mavica digital camera, which– like most digitals– has an LCD screen that allows him to preview his shots.

"As soon as I turned the camera on, a security guard told me video cameras were not allowed," he says. Greiman explained that it was a still camera, and the guard, apparently satisfied, walked away.

A few minutes later, however, the man returned with another guard, "who said in no uncertain terms that he knew what I held in my hands was a video camera and that either the camera went or I went." Greiman went. Since there were still 15 minutes before showtime, Greiman asked if he could get a refund. The answer was no.

I called Sterling & Reid at its headquarters in Sarasota, Florida, where the woman who answered the phone, after hearing that I was a reporter, briefly conferred with someone in the office. She then said that "no one was available." I persisted: When would someone be available? Apparently never. "Thank you for calling," she said– then hung up on me.

Greiman was philosophical about forfeiting his $25 and has shifted his energy to publicizing Sterling & Reid's egregious history of animal abuse. In an email, he attached a list of violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which sets minimal federal standards for animals used in exhibitions, and citations from the USDA. From New York to New Orleans, Sterling & Reid has incurred dozens of charges and and legal fines.

In the past, Sterling & Reid has been cited for using malnourished horses, accidentally dropping a bear on a highway, and– contrary to USDA request– forcing an arthritic tiger to perform.

Shortly after Sterling & Reid left Charlottesville, they were in the news again.

According to the Virginian-Pilot, animal handler David Creech of Glendale, Arizona, has been charged with four counts of animal cruelty following an August 23 incident in which Creech allegedly beat an elephant "until its hide bled."

The Pilot also revealed that the USDA has launched an official investigation, the third for the beleaguered circus company in four years.

"In a way," Greiman wrote of his incident, "I'm glad this all happened the way it did, because had I had a 'normal' experience, I never would have researched the circus."

Because he did, Greiman now checks Sterling & Reid's website for upcoming stops on its circuit and plans to email the mayor and city council of each city to urge them to require that an animal-welfare representative be present to check the animals' conditions and treatment.

Greiman also contacted Charlottesville mayor Blake Caravati, who, he says, "wrote back stating that the city currently has no control over regulating permits" for circuses that come to town. "However, he did assure me that he would draft an ordinance that requires all traveling shows with animals to adhere to humane conditions."

If you're interested in learning more, Sterling & Reid's website is sterlingandreidbros.com. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals maintains a Circus Fact Sheet website; for Sterling & Reid's history, go to circuses.com/factsterl.html.

Finally, some good news: There are at least a couple of sanctuaries for old and injured circus and zoo animals in this country; to learn about one of them, go to elephants.com.

 And if you hope this kind of sanctuary will someday be unnecessary, follow Greiman's example: Let the city and the county– and, if you can, cities and counties all along the circus's itinerary– hear your voice.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902.