For decades the Cole Brothers Circus has been coming to Southampton, bringing with them a variety of high-flying and theatrical performances. In addition to the clowns, acrobats, aerial artists, and magicians, there is another type of act has been drawing audiences (and controversy) to the show since it began coming to the East End—the circus animals. As with many other circuses that use exotic animals in their shows (like the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey), the Cole Bros. Circus has fallen under scrutiny from animal rights activists for the way in which these animals are used and cared for. The show regularly features cartoon poodles, adult and baby elephants, and even Bengal tigers. These animals make the journey out to Southampton to perform their unbelievable and, according to some, “unnatural” acts in front of large audiences of families.
Historically, the circus has taken place at the Elks Lodge on 27A in Southampton, but due to new legislation banning exotic animals from the town passed seven years ago, it was forced to move to the Shinnecock Reservation, just West of Southampton Village. According to the protestors, this move was due in part to the escape of one of the Cole Bros. Bengal tigers in Queens in 2004. According to the New York Times the tiger “escaped from a circus cage in Forest Park and roamed briefly in the area, causing a collision on the Jackie Robinson Parkway before being corralled by animal trainers and the police.” After that, protestors said, the Southampton Board of Trustees agreed that it was not a good idea to be bringing tigers into town, and implemented the ban against exotic animals.
This ban was largely the result of the determined efforts of animal rights activists over the years, who believe that the training and handling of some of these exotic animals falls under the category of “cruelty.” Protests of the circus at the Elks Lodge have been going on since 1990, and first started with the help of author and East End resident, Cleveland Amory, who devoted his life to the promotion of animal rights. Although Amory passed in 1998, his cause has been taken up by others, like Zelda Penzel, the leader of PEACE (People for the End of Animal Cruelty and Exploitation). Penzel and her fellow activists have been using existing legislation to argue on behalf of the ban of exotic animals. Now, however, it seems as if their efforts in passing the new legislation were for naught—as of three years ago, the circus has moved just down the road to the Reservation, where it is able to avoid the town’s jurisdiction.
Now that the circus has moved, so have the protestors. Two dozen people gathered out in front of the entrance to the Reservation on Tuesday afternoon, trying to garner support from people driving by and to deter circus goers from coming in to see the show. “Elephants and Tigers are not like dogs,” says Penzel, “They cannot be trained with a cookie. Their training involves much more forceful measures.” According to Penzel one of their main objections is to the use of “bullhooks,” which are hooked instruments with sharp ends that can be used to control elephants by applying pressure to their sensitive areas.
“There are so many other countries that ban animal circuses for these very reasons,” says Penzel. “It is a mystery to me why Southampton hasn’t been able to address this issue permanently.” Among the list of nations that ban animal circuses are Bolivia, Austria, India, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and Slovakia. Dorothy Frankel, a well-known local sculptor as well as an animal rights activist agrees, “There’s a ban in Southampton, why wouldn’t there be a ban on the Reservation?”
The protestors seemed to be getting a lot of honks in support and they felt like they were getting their point across. According to Penzel, their efforts in Southampton have been mirrored by governmental action against animal circuses. Last year the Cole Brothers along with owner, John Pugh, pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act (1973) by illegally selling two elephants into unsuitable conditions. The Circus was then sentenced to four years of probation and fined $150,000. In recent months, the circus was fined $15,000 by the USDA for failure to provide proper veternary care and living conditions for their elephants.
Of course, there are always two sides to the story. Circuses often claim that their programs are beneficial to the survival of the species. According to the Cole Bros. website their elephants come from The Endangered Ark Foundation, which is the “home of the 2nd largest herd of elephants in the U.S.
and one of the most successful breeding programs in the world.” Whether your heart bleeds for these animals or not, it would be hard to imagine a child who would be able to enjoy the circus after seeing the protestors’ signs
at the entrance.