Ringling Bros. Circus announced nearly two years ago that it would abandon its world famous elephant acts by 2018--but what about its other animals?
A new report from PETA alleges that among the animals “held captive” by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the tigers experience “environmental and physiological neglect, psychological abuse, and the use of…fear-based techniques” all to ensure they can “entertain circus audiences.”
The report’s author Jay Pratte is a specialist in animal training and behavior and a consultant for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Bear Care Group (BCG), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), along with PETA.
The report, which highlights the USDA and AZA standards and guidelines the Ringling Bros. has violated, was compiled based on Pratte’s “personal observations at two separate performances by the Ringling Bros. Red Unit in Lincoln, Nebraska” earlier this year, along with “direct conversation with three staff members,” including two big cat trainers and a supervisor responsible for the “encounter area,” prior to the show.
While Pratte says he believes some of the abuses “may appear benign to the public,” he asserts that they should be readily apparent to experts (and Ringling’s trainers) as “diminished welfare.”
Pratte told The Daily Beast that while the trainers he spoke to did not raise any concerns, it was because they had “convinced themselves that this [was] normal; this [was] what they were taught, this [was] what they were told. There was absolutely no wrongdoing from their perspective--this [was] how you do things.”
Most shocking are the claims related to the animal's’ physiological and psychological health. The report states that the tigers displayed “several signs of severe and chronic stress” along with physical conditions that could be “easily treated and/or avoided” if the animals were given “the appropriate level of care.” Pratte notes “obesity, hygromas [or cysts], cracked foot pads, cuts, punctures, and scarring” on many of the tigers in the Red Unit along with “psychological distress.”
His account also noted that the tigers’ “‘enclosures’ appeared clean,” but that “the living environments were overly sterile…had minimum to no shade” and provided “no means of avoiding other cats’ presence or conflict.”
Pratte also told The Daily Beast that he found Ringling met “none of the minimum standards and none of the individual standards.”
“[PETA] hasn’t inspected us or looked at our medical records,” Stephen Payne, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Feld Entertainment (Ringling’s parent company), told The Daily Beast. “I call into question their conclusions based on just a cursory observation of the animals.” He says that PETA only conducted the report to “score media and political points.”
Pratte told The Daily Beast that he doesn’t “give a fig about anyone’s political agenda…My hope is that we can actually make a change for the animal welfare.”
“I was asked to go in and to assess the animal welfare,” Pratte said. “At no point was there any kind of manipulation on the part of PETA. It is my report with my words.”
But Payne didn’t buy it. “There’s a reason that you got [the report] first, this is their play,” he said. “Their strategy should be pretty self evident and [Feld Entertainment] has been down this road before.”
“We specialize in showcasing the amazing relationship between our animals and trainers. Really what these allegations are, are affronts to the dedicated men and women who actually spent their lives with these animals,” Payne said. “Last time I checked, PETA doesn’t actually care for any tigers at all. We’ve been doing it for over 100 years.”
In addition to the report, PETA filed a complaint to the regional directors of the USDA, alerting them to the potential violations exhibited by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Authored by Rachel Matthews, Associate Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement, the complaint requests that the agency “carefully inspect the big cats and other animals used on both of Ringling’s units and ensure that they are provided with adequate veterinary care, shelter, water, and an appropriate environment consistent with the minimum standards of the Animal Welfare Act.”
Matthews told The Daily Beast that what happened with Ringling’s retiring of their elephant act could “absolutely” happen with their big cat shows.
“There is just a huge changing tide of public opinion and the proof is in the fact that these businesses that exploit animals are shrinking and shutting down,” Matthews said. “Ringling took its elephants off the road and shut down an entire traveling unit…SeaWorld is doing very poorly, and the National Aquarium has agreed to move their dolphins to a seaside sanctuary. We’re really seeing a sea of change of public opinion with regards to animal performances.”
It’s true that Ringling Bros. has taken note of changing public opinion about their animal performances. Following the announcement in 2015 that the Circus would do away with the elephant acts, Executive Vice President Alana Feld told the Associated Press that the decision was based largely on customer’s concerns.
“There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” Feld said at the time. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”
“What Ringling needs to do is do the right thing by these animals and do the right thing by public opinion and let the animals retire to reputable sanctuaries,” Matthews said. “This report is really exposing the abuse that's happening at Ringling right before our eyes...Taking elephants off the road and out of the shows was only the first step. We want to put an end to the abuse under the big tops.”
Pratte said that he’s not against all zoos and circuses, only those that violate animal welfare standards.
“If there was someway Ringling could [improve] I would be happy to help them…but within the current structure and framework I don’t think it could be done. It would require an absolute restructuring of housing, training, and management of those animals from the ground level up.”