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Saturday, November 25, 2006 

Carson & Barnes Circus 2006 – A Successful Animal Activist Strategy

In February of 2006 in Hugo, OK the Carson & Barnes Circus decided to reexamine the way that the show answered anti-circus rhetoric from organizations like PETA. After years of shrill charges from animal liberationists a tipping point was approaching. Both the media and the public were ready to hear our story, to listen to our side of the animal argument. Telling that story became part of the focus for 2006. The circus resolved that the time had come to stop speaking defensively about the use of animals, to answer every anti-circus charge with the facts, to educate and to remind our audience of the importance of Asian Elephant Conservation. As 2006 winds down, it’s clear that a tipping point is indeed in the offing, and 2007 may see a continued erosion in liberationist credibility

Several specific decisions and events aided in the promotion of the pro-circus, pro-animal message. The decision to designate a single spokesperson to address animal issues when talking to the press and the electronic media allowed the Carson & Barnes Circus to stay on message. The use of graphics to explain conservation and training helped to sell that pro-circus message to visitors, and to the circus audience. The use of electronic mail and faxes to answer every negative utterance from anti-circus campaigners allowed the show to level the playing field. Adaptive measures, examining PETA’s 2006 anti-circus methodology and creating materials directly countering that methodology kept the show competitive in the usual war of words.

In 2006 PETA may have been its own worst enemy in attacks against circus in general and specific attacks against the Carson & Barnes Circus and Feld Entertainment shows. In Virginia PETA lost a major lawsuit against Mr. Kenneth Feld and Feld Entertainment’s Ringling shows. In New Jersey a federal court convicted animal liberationists of multiple felony counts stemming from both direct and indirect attacks on Huntingdon Laboratories, a biosciences company. Among the convicted, Andrew Stepanian a frequent and outspoken anti-circus activist. The death of an elephant groom at a so called elephant rescue facility in Tennessee called into question the way that sanctuaries supported largely by animal liberation dollars are actually run. The fact that such sanctuaries are rarely subjected to same kind of oversight as circuses and zoos is appalling. The recent news that another rescue facility touted by liberationists is building a Visitors’ Center suggests that such facilities are really zoos, the very institutions that AR claims to loath. On the legislative front several state level bills endorsed by animal liberationists to needless hamper elephant management practices failed to muster sufficient support to become law. PETA’s own defense against felony animal cruelty charges in a case in North Carolina continues to dog liberationist credibility, as does PETA’s association with Animal Liberation Front icon Rodney Coronado. Coronado was imprisoned in the 1990’s after firebombing facilities at Michigan State University. Later he received direct financial support from PETA. In 2006 Coronado was imprisoned again, for vandalism. Recently Coronado has repudiated his involvement in extremist causes and “direct action,” and stated that he is disillusioned with the groups he has been associated with, and he is no longer a vegan.

PETA orchestrated attacks on the Carson & Barnes Circus through much of 2006 was surprisingly tepid. No one incident better illustrates liberationist failures better than events in Gilbert, AZ – where electronic email from an anti-circus organizer leaked to a statewide newspaper. (The Arizona Republic.) In that e-mail PETA activist Jan McClellan enthusiastically encouraged circus critics both to lie, and to deny any PETA affiliation. In other news stories PETA came off badly. Sometimes getting what you ask for can backfire. In Auburn, NY the Cayuga county Executive forwarded PETA abuse charges to county animal welfare officials asking for a full report. Cayuga County SPCA used both uniformed and undercover officers to thoroughly investigate the circus. Instead of supporting PETA charges the resulting report lauded circus animal care noting the obvious bond between our elephants and their handlers. "Investigators were impressed by the care given to elephants and horses," said Legislature Chairman George Fearon, told the Auburn newspaper, The Citizen. By no means should liberationist failures be viewed as a softening in the animal rights position. A lie spoken loudly and frequently carries weight. No evidence exists suggesting that PETA campaigns keep would-be circus goers away from a targeted show, but certainly liberationists have successfully scared hosts and venues on occasion. Hosts that refuse to be intimidated win out. In Milford, MI in July 2006 liberationists pressured local hosts and local government relentlessly in advance of the circus. Liberationist efforts if anything aided hosts in selling thousands of pre-sale tickets and boasting full houses. The Milford Police Department politely corralled a handful of activists near the circus grounds. Pressure brought to bear on property managers by PETA strategist Lisa Wathne proved equally ineffective. At no time did liberationist activities interfere with circus operations, or normal business activities at a mall, park, or fairgrounds. In fact Ms. Wathne admitted to at least one property owner that she hasn’t seen a circus since she was a child, and she’s never seen the Carson & Barnes Circus.

If the Carson & Barnes Circus successfully turned a corner on animal liberation issues in 2006, the two people deserving the lion’s share of the credit for that change in direction are Kristin Byrd Parra, and elephant manager Randy Peterson. As head of animal operations for the Miller-Byrd family, Kristin Parra’s genuine commitment to first rate stewardship and to regulatory compliance is evident in a lengthy list of outstanding local, state, and federal inspection reports. Kristin’s husband, Gustavo Parra brings a sense of levity to those rare confrontations with activists, diffusing tension with good humor. In the post-Woodcock era of circus elephant management few road managers bring more skills to the table than Randy Peterson. Schooled in media savvy during his years in the Feld elephant program, well practiced in elephant education from his tenure at the Circus World Museum, Randy is affable, informed, and happy to talk to a crowd; the ideal public face of elephant management.

Media savvy alone can’t negate charges by anti-circus critics and animal liberationists. Quality animal care remains the best defense against spurious attacks by liberationists. On the Carson & Barnes Circus the caliber of our elephant care, so evident on the road goes back to Hugo and the merit of our elephant care at home in Oklahoma. Ironically no elephant manager in America has been as unfairly maligned by liberationists as Tim Frisco; while by and large it’s Mr. Frisco who deserves kudos for the outstanding health and well-being of the Miller herd.

Predicting PETA actions in 2007 is beyond the scope of these comments. 2006 saw fewer PETA inspired activists on or near circus lots, and little in the way of anti-circus legislative successes. Every show providing animal entertainment requires continued vigilance by circus fans, animal fans, and host organizations to counter liberationist propaganda. For the Carson & Barnes Circus, lessons learned in 2006 will allow us to move into 2007 recapturing the headlines from anti-animal critics.

The circus is coming to town.

And that’s a good thing

About me

  • I'm B.E.Trumble
  • From Everywhere, United States
  • Ben Trumble works in circus, carnival, and media relations
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