Congressman Sam Farr is trying to ban elephants from circuses. Seattle’s Mayor Paul Schell wants to ban all wild animals from city facilities. Redmond, Washington, has already forbidden circus animals in October.

Farr and Schell agree with animal rights activists who claim that circus animals suffer from the stress of travel and performance. However, circus officials and supporters have countered the argument with evidence that the animals are treated well, trained using positive reinforcement and not punishment, and are not more aggressive than wild animals.

Farr introduced HR2929 on September 23rd, the “Captive Elephant Accident Protection Act,” to prohibit the sale or lease of elephants for traveling shows, circuses, and elephant rides.

Farr stated in his remarks before Congress that “his bill will make circuses safer for spectators and more humane for the animals.” Farr cited information from animal rights activists to claim that “elephants were brutalized” to make them “behave like dogs.”

“But circus officials strongly disagreed. Joan Galvin is the vice president of government affairs for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. She said that this bill was nothing but a scare tactic to push forward an extreme animal rights agenda. Ringling Brothers has not had any animal-related incidents that have put the public in danger. There is no evidence that captive animals behave more aggressively or with erratic behaviors than their wild counterparts.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has compiled a report of elephant incidents, including injuries and deaths, that have occurred since 1990 at circuses and zoos in the US and Canada, as well as animal parks and publicity events in Europe, Asia, and South America. Ringling only has one incident on the list of nearly 60 encounters: the death of a Ringling trainer in the company’s Elephant Farm.

Ringling cited statistics collected by anti-circus groups in its opposition to HR2929. “Congressman Farr’s legislation relies more on emotion than fact to support his notion that elephants at circuses or traveling shows are a danger to the general public. According to statistics provided by animal-rights organizations like PETA and HSUS, fewer than five people have been injured in an American circus show over the last 20 years. These incidents did not involve direct contact between the audience and the elephants performing or any aggressive behavior on the part of the elephant.

“Also, contrary to Mr. Farr’s claims, there have never been any deaths of members of the general public while watching a circus show. The only two deaths have happened as a result of people who have trespassed into an elephant compound at night.”

The Humane Society of the US and the Performing Animal Welfare Society, along with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have been against the use of animals for entertainment for many years. As in other campaigns, they have cobbled together strings of incidents along with surreptitiously filmed videotapes and testimony from various luminaries and other activists to comprise evidence that animals are mistreated in training and housed inhumanely. Every criminal or accident incident fuels the fire.

Deaths and injuries

The federal government licenses circuses and animal exhibits. They are also subject to routine inspections as well as investigations into complaints. If violations of the Animal Welfare Act occur, charges can be brought.

In the last few years, there have been a number of incidents involving elephants. Some of these incidents resulted in fines and convictions. Ringling Brothers lost two elephants recently and was charged by the US Department of Agriculture for one of these deaths under the AWA. Ringling Brothers denied the charges and reached an agreement with the federal agency back in 1998. They also donated $20,000 for elephant research and care.

Clyde Beatty and Cole Brothers Circus were accused of animal abuse this year for using an elephant hook to catch four animals in mid-1998. King Royal Circus, which was convicted in June 1998 of neglect for the death of an animal, was fined $200,000. It also lost its license as an exhibitor.

John Cuneo of Hawthorne Corporation provides elephants to circuses. He has received a lot of trouble over AWA violations. In 1996, the USDA filed charges against John Cuneo for failing to handle animals after an elephant ran amok in Hawaii properly, killed a trainer, and injured another before being killed by police. In addition, several spectators were injured.

Cuneo was fined $12,500 for his actions without admitting any fault. His license was suspended three weeks later for trying to ship an elephant to Puerto Rico without the animal having completed its tuberculosis treatment.

Supporters of HR 2929 point to dozens of elephant-related injuries and deaths, including many that occurred in zoos and not circuses. Many of these incidents also took place abroad. PeTA claims that 30 of the 44 deaths since 1990 occurred outside the US. One of the 12 deaths in the US occurred before 1990. Five involved zoos; one was at Ringling’s Elephant Farm, three involved circuses, and two others were not specified. Two of the three deaths involving circuses were caused by visitors entering the animal enclosures, and the third occurred after Cuneo paid USDA a fine. On the list, one foreign death was recorded twice, and another happened before 1990.

Animal handlers are more likely to be injured than elephant riders or those at publicity events.


The Seattle ban on wild animals acts is based on the same rationale as Farr and the animal rights activists. The mayor claims that circus cats are “sentenced” to a stressful life with limited freedoms, where they have little chance to act naturally.

Schell wrote that during his mayoral campaign two years prior, several individuals and groups asked him to consider banning events featuring exotic animals like lions or elephants in city facilities. Recently, the Waldorf School’s fourth graders in Seattle signed a letter supporting a ban.

Citizens for Cruelty-Free Entertainment, a Seattle-based group that promotes cruelty-free entertainment, is backed by animal rights organizations across the country.

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