Outside the Cole Bros. Circus in West Deptford, Corrine White looks into the eyes of the elephants slowly lumbering around a 60-foot circle, saddled with kids their backs, and sees only one thing.
For White, one of eight , the lack of empathy among circus trainers and lack of education among circus patrons is a combination that spells horrific conditions for the non-humans under the big top.
“It just stabs me right through the heart,” she said.
Confined to a strip along Crown Point Road and blocked from the red-and-yellow circus tent by a string of box trucks, White and her fellow protesters did what they could to convince the families streaming across the road from attending the show. They handed out pamphlets outlining alleged mistreatment, talking with those who would listen, and displayed giant photographs of what they said was elephant abuse.
Plenty of patrons grabbed the leaflets before heading in, and a few stopped to talk with the protesters, who were otherwise a quiet bunch.
“Now I don’t want to go in,” said Amy Williams—although she ended up heading inside with her family a few moments later.
There were a few success stories for the protesters. Rachel Ogden, one of the leaders of the group, managed to convince a handful of people to turn away, including one father who opted to take his daughter to the movies instead.
“I just got the chills—it’s awesome,” Ogden said as the two walked back across Crown Point Road. “It’s why we’re out here.”
Besides the alleged abuses, Ogden accused the circus of putting families in danger because of the way they handle animals, citing cases where elephants and white tigers broke free and caused chaos and injuries.
The group came prepared with a litany of alleged misdeeds—including an undercover video showing alleged elephant abuse—and citations and substantial fines from the USDA against Cole Bros. for various violations of the Animal Welfare Act and other federal statutes, including a $15,000 settlement earlier this year to close a number of those violations.
Those abuses won’t go away until the animals are taken out of the performances, several of the protesters said.
“Wildlife belongs in the wild,” said Ellen Garrity.
She pointed to the blown-up photos of bullhooks and whips used in training the circus animals, and questioned how anyone could find those tools acceptable.
“They feel pain just as much as we do,” she said. “[Performing] is not normal for them.”
The success of troupes like Cirque du Soleil and the fact that Cole Bros. will actually perform sans animals, if asked, is proof enough for White that it’s simply unnecessary to have exotic animals as performers.
“I would promote this circus if it didn’t have animals,” she said.
Cole Bros. marketing director Tom Renesto, who kept an eye on the group for much of their protest, denied the protesters’ claims and said flat-out that the circus doesn’t abuse its animals.
“They’re protesting what they believe,” Renesto said. “I don’t believe it—I never have, I never will.”