It's a circus out there
Sun, Sep. 17, 2006
Do all circuses abuse their animals? What sort of license does a circus with exotic animals have to have in Georgia? If you're picketing a circus here in Columbus, how many people can join your protest before it needs a permit? And are clowns evil?
These are the posers I pondered last week when people complained about the Shrine Circus.
The 43rd Shrine Circus started Saturday and continues at 1:30 and 5 p.m. today in the Columbus Civic Center. The protest outside will be 12:30-1:30 p.m. -- unless more than 15 people show up, and then it will need a police department permit, which organizer Doug Moyerman has not procured.
Moyerman, a Brookstone senior, is not alone in objecting to a circus that has animal acts. But he has been alone before -- the only guy outside holding up a sign. This year he expects about a dozen people to join him.
Among other locals objecting to circus animal acts is Elizabeth Jordan, 36, who said she has worked with big cats at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla.
(http://www.bigcatrescue.org/). She saw a performer smack a tiger in the face with a stick during a 2003 Sterling & Reid circus at the Civic Center, she said.
The Shriners said they don't use Sterling & Reid. They for years have hired Serge Coronas Circus Hollywood. Ledger-Enquirer files show the Sterling & Reid circus was here in January 2003, but the annual Shrine Circus was that September, as usual.
Having gathered information from Web sites such as circusspotlight.org and http://www.circuses.com/, Jordan said she would not go to any circus that uses animals. Some circuses repeatedly have been caught mistreating tigers and elephants, sometimes with lethal results.
Jordan was so alarmed by a list of criminal offenses titled "Circus Criminals" at circuses.com that she alerted the Ledger-Enquirer. That site might make you think clowns are dangerous. For example, it said one named "Spanky" was arrested in 2004 in Fayetteville, N.C., on 10 counts of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor.
Some of the circus acts such online sites accused of mistreating or failing to control their animals were associated with Shrine circuses, but I could not find "Serge Coronas Circus Hollywood" among them.
But "Circus Hollywood" popped up on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals site at www.circuses.com/fact-
hollywood.asp. It said the circus based at 211 Rye Road in Bradenton, Fla., was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for inadequate animal care back in the late 1990s and in 2000. The address matched.
The family running Serge Coronas Circus Hollywood has been in the business for generations. I went to the Civic Center on Friday and talked to the younger Serge, who said the family circus is inspected regularly and always fixes any problems pointed out. It has had no major run-ins with the USDA, he said, and those Web sites can't be trusted.
He said the clowns here in Columbus are Shriners, not circus workers.
Online postings from animal welfare groups could be bad circus publicity, as no responsible parent comes home and hollers, "Hey kids! Guess what? We're going to watch powerful animals abused and humiliated until they perform tricks for us!"
"Oh no! Not another football game!" the kids whine.
"Nope! This time we're going to the CIRCUS!"
"Yay!" the kids cheer.
I was going to be careful about implicating Shriners in this, because I sure didn't want a bunch of angry men in fezzes trying to run me down in those tiny cars. After they circle a few times.
But I did ask questions, such as: Is the circus subject to state licensing? And is anyone running background checks on the clowns?
On Thursday I called the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the DNR's Todd Nims said any circus employing elephants and tigers must get a wild animal license. He checked on the Coronas circus and told me it had not renewed its license in two years. If it did not do that right away, then it could not have its animals in the state of Georgia, he said.
Nims called the Civic Center to tell General Manager Dale Hester about this. Later Nims told me circus workers had filed the paperwork and would have the license this weekend.
The show must go on. It promises "mirthful music-making," "artfully arranged airborne arabesques," "exuberantly exhibited exotic entities" and other amazing acts of alliteration -- like people protesting the oppression of performing pachyderms.
Local Shriner Herbert Johnston said the circus is the club's major fundraiser, an event it has sponsored since the 1960s. He has noticed a protester or two outside in recent years, and that's OK: If people want to protest, that's their business, he said. The Shriners otherwise get no complaints, and the money helps support their burn hospitals, he said.
I forgot to ask him whether anyone's running criminal record checks on the clowns. Hester didn't know: He said no one had ever asked before.
Maybe all clowns should have to get licenses and photo IDs that list aliases like "Wiggles" and "Fuzzy" and "Snuffy."
You can't be too careful with those Bozos, you know.
Contact Tim Chitwood at 706-571-8508 or [email protected]