‘Last chance to see Elephants live!’ Circus’ visit to Missouri, Kansas draws ire, fans

Long known as a staple of the circus, the performing elephants of the Garden Bros. company may soon be taken off the circuit.

Garden Bros. performed two shows Tuesday at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence and will perform Wednesday in Topeka at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Landon Arena. The Topeka show has prompted hundreds of emails in protest.

The protesters, who decry the captivity circus animals face and the abuse of some, seem to be making their voices heard. The Sarasota, Fla.-based circus company, in business for more than 100 years, has intimated that this could be the last season elephants are used in its tours.

“Last chance to see Elephants live!” the company’s website exclaims. In March, the company’s marketing director, Kaila Schlake, told North Carolina publication The Daily Reflector that “the owner hasn’t made his final decision yet, but at the end of the tour they might not be touring with the elephants.”

As the Garden Bros. Circus mulls ceasing its use of performing elephants, officials there, who did not agree to an interview for this story, likely hope their company does not go the way of the Ringling Brothers. That company stopped using elephants in May 2016. They were retired to a sanctuary in Florida. Almost exactly a year after retiring elephants — and 146 years after its first show — the Ringling circus put on its final show, in late May.

About 4,000 people attended the two Garden Bros. shows in Independence, which included camels, horses and elephants.

That elephants may soon be retired from the stage is welcome news for Sara Zimmerman, her husband Kevin and about eight others who wielded signs Tuesday in protest of the circus’ use of animals. They stood on sidewalks near the arena, broadcasting to passing vehicles messages like “NO EXCUSE FOR ANIMAL ABUSE” and “STOP CIRCUS SUFFERING.”

A long list of allegations is compiled in a factsheet by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals against Garden Bros. and its affiliated companies.

“Circuses really just can’t meet the physical, mental or social needs of the animals,” Sara Zimmerman, who organized the small protest, said. “They’re confined to small spaces for long periods of time, they’re deprived of social interaction and they are controlled with physical violence.”

Though some attendees acknowledged captivity is not ideal for animals’ well being, they still showed up for the circus with their children in tow.

“I understand what they’re doing,” said Nichole Jacobs a mother of two young daughters. “But my girls wanted to come to the circus so we’re coming to the circus.”

Another mother, Drea Parker, brought her daughter and daughter’s cousin, both 7, to the show. “(The protesters) have their right to voice their opinion,” she said. “It’s just not my opinion and it’s not going to stop me.”

A father, Teodocio Muneton, attended the show with his wife and baby boy.

“Maybe the animals go through some cruelty while getting trained,” Muneton said. “But it’s fun to see them, what they can do. Maybe they don’t go through so much cruelty.”

The city of Indepedendence’s animal services officer reported no observable violations in routine inspections of the animals before the show.

For some circus attendees, like 7-year-old Mary Parker, animals at the circus are its biggest draw. Her favorite aspect is “when the aminals come out and they do tricks.”

Zimmerman entreated parents to educate their children about documented mistreatment of animals by some in the circus industry.

“I really hope that people are opening their eyes and hearts and having compassion for these animals,” Zimmerman said.

Many drove past Zimmerman and other protesters without so much as a honk or wave on their way to the Garden Bros. show at Silverstein Arena.

In Topeka, protesters used a different tactic ahead of Wednesday’s shows at the Landon Arena. One official said he received hundreds of emails opposing the company’s use of animals.

H.R. Cook, the regional general manager, said all of the emails contained the same form letter.

“All animal circuses are cruel,” the letter states. “Since you now know about the cruelty that is inherent whenever animals are used for entertainment, I hope you'll take a stand against this abuse by requiring Garden Bros. to perform without animals.”

Cook said in a Garden Bros. show last week in Iowa, at another venue he manages, there were no reports of animal abuse.

But if anyone suspects animal abuse at a circus, Cook said they could call their local USDA office.

He added that with advancing technology, the novelty of seeing wild animals in person is being replaced with videos and images of them. That may be hastening the retiring of animals by circus groups.

“It used to be when you were a kid, you could only see an elephant in a circus,” Cook said. “Now you can watch National Geographic on your smartphone or computer, so it (the circus) is not as spectacular or special as it used to be.”

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg