The Cole Bros. Circus big tent went up on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation on Monday afternoon for a two-day, four-show engagement—and, as promised, a small group of animal rights activists lined up near the East Gate Road entrance to the reservation. They were calling attention to allegations of animal abuse by the circus’s trainers, and the fact that the circus and tribe are skirting town rules that ban the display of exotic animals.
Seven years after Southampton Town blocked the circus, which used to pitch its tent at the Southampton Elks Lodge property on County Road 39, from using tigers and elephants in its shows, a half dozen protesters waved at cars entering the reservation with signs spotlighting training and captivity practices that they say are inhumane.
Circus organizers and animal trainers themselves, predictably, said the protesters have it all wrong and are focusing on practices that were abandoned years ago.
“It ain’t nothing barbaric like it used to be,” said Cole Bros. Circus Marketing Director Bill Dundee, a barrel-chested Scotsman with a jet black Elvis-like pompadour and the hint of Tennessee twang to his brogue, as he strolled through the alleys between tractor-trailers filled with soda machines and portable showers. “I started in Australia in 1960. It was bad back then, but it’s come a long way—nobody mistreats the animals no more.”
Walking past an area where four elephants, including a 1-year-old born in the circus’s stalls, stood in the shade of a broad canopy, surrounded by electric fencing, Mr. Dundee pointed out that the animals are not kept in chains, are always in the shade, and are well fed and cared for. He described reports of beatings and torture to get the animals to perform as “fiction.”
“In the old days, they’d just chain the elephants to a post out in the sun,” Mr. Dundee said. “What them animal rights people don’t understand is that if you invest all this time and effort into training an elephant, or them tigers, you don’t want to mistreat them. You have a worker at your business, you don’t go beating them—they won’t work for you.”
Cole Bros. Circus Business Administrator Renee Storey said the company’s owners, directors and employees are pained by the continued objections to their use of animals. Acknowledging that there are some people who subscribe to the philosophy that using animals in any act is wrong, regardless of the training methods or care practices, she echoed the sentiment that today’s animal trainers and circus employees are misunderstood animal lovers who would not stand for any mistreatment of their four-legged comrades.
“I feel really bad that most of the protesters never get to see how the animals are cared for, and have preconceived ideas based on what they read on the internet,” Ms. Storey said. “There’s 150 people on the circus, it’s entire families—there are a lot of eyes watching how the animals are treated, and they would not tolerate abuse, just like they won’t tolerate child abuse.”
Nonetheless, critics can find plenty of ammunition to lob at the traveling show, which tours the country from March to November. The Cole Bros. Circus recently paid a $15,000 fine levied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture following a claim filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that the animals were not receiving adequate veterinary care. Ms. Storey said the circus adamantly denies the claims made in the complaint, but decided it was easier and less expensive to pay the fine than to spend the time refuting the charges through official channels. The PETA website also prominently features a video purporting to show elephant trainer Tim Frisco roughly gouging elephants with a steel hook while instructing a new employee to “make them scream” to “get their attention.”
Mr. Frisco, whose act is still featured as part of the circus that performed on the reservation this week, declined to speak to a reporter outside his bus-sized motor home before the show on Monday evening.
Cole Bros. Circus no longer owns any of the animals that star in its nightly shows and contracts with Mr. Frisco and others for the services of their acts. The show’s dozen tigers are the property, and companions, of Juergen and Judit Nerger, a flamboyant German couple who open the show each night with their acrobatic, fire-jumping feline brood.
Mr. Nerger, now in his 35th year working with tigers, said that conventional wisdom in the animal training business has come to rely on rewards rather than punishment to get animals to perform. He said the whip he uses in the act is a relic of a day when a harsh leather whip was needed to keep aggressive lions at bay. His whip is made only of braided nylon, resembling thin mountain climbers rope, and is used like a conductor’s baton to direct the animals, rather than as a schoolmarm’s switch.